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Sunday's vote: A return to Fortress Switzerland?

A vote Sunday could end Switzerland's brief experiment with open borders.

By Anna MomiglianoCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 7, 2009

No Passports: For now, borders such as this one between Switzerland and Germany remain open.

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Newscom


Lugano, Switzerland

This country's brief experiment with open borders faces an uncertain future Sunday.

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Voters are roughly split on the issue of whether Switzerland should close the gates or continue to allow the free flow of workers, tourists and transport trucks.

The referendum that may cancel the Schengen Agreement was called by the far-right Swiss People's Party, which has gained support recently with its nationalistic rhetoric. The agreement allows for border crossings without checks for most European Union countries, even though Switzerland is not a full-fledged EU member.

Although two-thirds of Swiss supported the idea of free borders in 2000, isolationism appears to be rising as the economy dips – and as the EU has expanded to include poorer countries from the east, says Antonio Missiroli, the director of studies at the European Policy Center in Brussels.

"There's a growing divide between Swiss cities, where people are anxious to open up to the external world, and rural communities, where xenophobia on the rise" he says.

For years, this tiny Alpine country, best known for chocolate, cheese, and banking privacy, has distanced itself from the EU, despite being literally surrounded by it. Isolationism is so deeply rooted here that it's been adopted as a role model by Euroskeptics across the Continent.

But Switzerland's export-oriented economy is also inextricably tied in with the world, potentially raising the stakes for closing the doors.

"We are finally realizing that if we do not start opening up toward Europe, Europe will close its gates to Switzerland, with a devastating impact on our economy," says Mattia Hausmann, a Swiss businessman.

Switzerland's isolation – and its fiercely guarded borders – has helped protect the country in times of peril, but the country's new generation of professionals worry that isolationism will result in backwardness, Mr. Hausmann says.

"They are now looking at other European countries as a source of inspiration and new ideas, while only a few years ago they were watched with distance," he says.

This enthusiasm among the young and cosmopolitan, however, may not reflect the feelings of the whole country, Hausmann admits. Open borders in recent years have injected tens of thousands of foreign workers into the Swiss economy, with many foreigners taking low-paying jobs.

"People are just tired of being Europe's bottleneck" Hausmann says.

Evidence of this view is supported by the recent electoral success of the Swiss People's Party, which in 2007 became the country's largest political force following a strong antiforeign campaign.

The Schengen Agreement had been approved by a national referendum in 2005, but the Swiss People's Party is now confident that the climate has changed.

"People are losing their jobs because there are so many commuters from Italy and France," says Pierre Rusconi, one of the party's leaders, as he campaigned to topple the Schengen on a recent Sunday in Lugano's central plaza. Leaflets distributed by Mr. Rusconi urge people to vote "against free circulation, high unemployment and criminality."