updated 6/6/2005 4:54:53 AM ET 2005-06-06T08:54:53

The beleaguered European Union has gotten a boost, courtesy of a country that usually keeps its distance from the 25-nation bloc.

Swiss voters agreed to join Europe’s passport-free zone — one of two issues on the ballot Sunday. They also granted same-sex couples more rights, marking the first time the issue has been put to a national vote in Europe.

The first result goes against the prevailing mood in the EU, which is reeling from the French and Dutch rejection of a proposed constitution for the bloc. Scrapping passport checks on the border also runs counter to Switzerland’s strong independence streak.

For 400 years, Switzerland’s Alpine peaks and strict neutrality have kept the rest of Europe at bay. The Swiss have prided themselves on not being a member of the bloc, and they do not use the European currency, the euro.

EU backers look for good news
Swiss President Samuel Schmid hailed the referendum as backing for the coalition government’s plans to develop closer links with the rest of Europe.

“The government sees the people’s yes to Schengen as a confirmation of a bilateral approach to Europe,” Schmid told reporters in Switzerland’s capital, Bern, using the German term to indicate passport-free.

But he also recognized that support for the zone was far from overwhelming.

About 55 percent of voters, or 1.47 million people, supported joining the 15-nation Schengen zone by 2007.

Still, EU proponents were grateful for the vote of confidence, however small. German Interior Minister Otto Schily called the vote is “an important positive signal for Europe at a time when Euro-skepticism — hopefully only temporarily — is gaining the upper hand.”

Just a week before, French voters worried about social benefits and immigration resoundingly rejected a charter to streamline the bloc and raise its international profile. Three days later , Dutch voters also turned their backs on the proposed constitution for much the same reasons.

Nine EU states have ratified the charter but it needs approval from all 25 states to take effect in late 2006, and the “no” vote in both France and the Netherlands — founding members of the bloc — was a huge blow to European integration.

Ripple effect
Experts had predicted the French and Dutch votes would encourage opponents of Schengen and that appeared to be true. Polls showed support for the passport-free zone declined rapidly after those referendums.

Much of that opposition came from Switzerland’s German speakers, who make up about two-thirds of the population. They fear integration with the rest of the continent will lead to domination by Germany, their powerful neighbor to the north.

In Brussels, Belgium, EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini welcomed the Swiss vote on behalf the European Commission, calling it an important step in strengthening relations.

“On the one hand, freedom of movement will obviously be facilitated; on the other hand, the cooperation on internal security can be strengthened,” they said in a joint statement.

Under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, the people’s consent is required on any major issue.

The Schengen zone allows travel through all participating countries without border checks. The 15 current members are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

When Switzerland joins Schengen in 2007, customs controls will remain in place since the country remains outside the EU.

Rights expanded for same-sex couples
In the referendum’s other issue, a larger majority — 1.56 million people or 58 percent — were in favor of granting more rights to same-sex couples.

The vote means that starting in 2007, registered same-sex couples will be receive the same tax and pension status as married couples, but they will not be allowed to adopt children or undergo fertility treatment.

It is the first national vote in Europe on such an issue, although other countries, such as Germany, have passed laws allowing registration of same-sex couples.

The two topics generated a larger turnout than usual in Switzerland’s referendums. Some 55.9 percent of the 4.82 million eligible voters participated, about 10 percent more than the average turnout over the past 15 years.

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