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In boost to EU, Swiss vote to join no-passport zone

Referendum also gives more rights to gay couples

GENEVA -- Independent-minded Swiss voters gave the shaken European Union a vote of confidence yesterday, approving participation in an EU passport-free zone even though Switzerland has never joined the 25-nation bloc.

Same-sex couples also were granted more rights in the two-issue referendum, marking the first time the issue has been put to a national vote in Europe.

Signaling Swiss desire for closer integration with the EU, about 55 percent of voters, or 1.47 million people, supported joining Europe's passport-free ''Schengen" zone by 2007.

President Samuel Schmid of Switzerland hailed the result as backing for the coalition government's policy of developing closer links with the rest of Europe, but he said the government would not ignore the large minority that voted against Schengen membership.

''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.

The result goes against the prevailing mood in the EU, reeling from recent rejections by French and Dutch voters of a proposed constitution for the bloc.

In Brussels, EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini welcomed the vote on behalf of the European Commission.

''The ratification of these association agreements is an important step in the relations between Switzerland and the European Union," Ferrero-Waldner and Frattini said in a joint statement. ''On the one hand, freedom of movement will obviously be facilitated; on the other hand, the cooperation on internal security can be strengthened."

The vote is ''an important positive signal for Europe at a time when Euro-skepticism -- hopefully only temporarily -- is gaining the upper hand," said Germany's interior minister, Otto Schily.

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.

Under Switzerland's system of direct democracy, the people's consent is required on any major issue, including closer integration with the rest of Europe.

Before yesterday's vote, specialists predicted that French and Dutch rejection of the EU constitution during the past week would encourage Schengen opponents, and opinion polls showed a rapid narrowing of the majority in favor of joining the zone.

The government has been in favor of joining the EU and its passport-free area, but many of Switzerland's German speakers -- who make up about two-thirds of the population -- had opposed greater integration with the rest of the continent.

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

Security measures also could be stepped up for major events such as the annual World Economic Forum in Davos and soccer's 2008 European Championships, which Switzerland is cohosting with Austria.

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 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 sparked a larger turnout than usual in Switzerland's referendums, which are held three or four times a year. 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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