French customs check across border irks Italy

The Italian Foreign Ministry summoned France's ambassador on Saturday, after uniformed French customs officers crossed the border in the Alps to confront a man suspected of carrying drugs.

French customs check across border irks Italy
A file photo of a train at Bardonecchia station. Photo: AFP

France insisted that the presence of its personnel at a railway station just inside Italy was acceptable.

However French ambassador Christian Masset was summoned over what Rome termed “a serious act considered outside the scope of cooperation between states sharing a border.”

The foreign ministry added that the EU neighbours would address the issue further at a meeting in the northern city of Turin on April 16th.

The Rainbow4Africa NGO, which has for months occupied part of the train station in the alpine village of Bardonecchia to aid migrants headed for France, filed a complaint after the French officials turned up there late Friday and told a Nigerian man to provide a urine sample.

Italian officials reacted with outrage, prompting an official explanatory statement from the French embassy.

Gerald Darmanin, the French minister charged with overseeing customs, signed the statement which explained how French officials came to be present when the Paris-bound train arrived from Milan.

“These uniformed agents identified as French customs officials suspected one passenger, a Nigerian national resident in Italy, of having drugs on his person.

“In line with article 60 bis of the customs code the agents asked the person if he would consent to providing a urine sample to detect drugs which he agreed to do in writing,” the statement read.

“In order to carry out the test in conditions respecting the person, the agents waited until the train arrived to use the facility at Bardonecchia station which was placed at the disposal of French customs,” the statement went on, saying the procedure respected current guidelines laid down in 1990.

The French officials duly carried out the test which came back negative.

But the Italian foreign ministry said France had failed to keep them fully abreast of developments, leaving Rome to slam the incident as “unacceptable.”

Matteo Salvini, the head of Italy's far-right League, commented that Rome, “instead of expelling Russian diplomats should remove French diplomats,” juxtaposing the incident with the furore over the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, widely blamed on Moscow.

READ ALSO: Migrant electrocuted on top of train from Italy to France


Five border crossings between Geneva and France re-open

After shutting down many border points with France, Swiss authorities have re-opened some of them to avoid bottlenecks.

Five border crossings between Geneva and France re-open
A picture taken on April 9, 2020 near Dardagny shows concrete blocks closing the border between Switzerland and France amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus. AFP

As part of sweeping measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic, the Federal Council closed most of its borders with France, Germany, Austria, and Italy on March 16th and decided to restore border controls with these countries.

The decision to restrict entry to Switzerland was made to protect the population and maintain the capacities of the Swiss public health system.

But starting on Monday April 20th, the authorities are re-opening the border crossing points between Geneva and France. They are Mategnin, Soral II, Monniaz and Veigy (coloured red below).

However, the openings of these cross points will be limited to weekdays from 6 am to 9 am when entering Switzerland, and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. when leaving the Swiss territory.

The border crossing at Landecy will also be open at the same times although only the green lane.

The new re-openings are an addition to the already existing customs that are open seven days a week, 24 hours a day: Ferney-Voltaire, Meyrin, Perly, Bardonnex, Moillesulaz, Thônex-Vallard, and Anières (coloured green).





Seven crossings have also been open on part-time basis, from 6 am to 8 pm every day: Chancy 1, Soral 1, Croix-de-Rozon, Veyrier, Fossard, Mon-Idée, and Monniaz.

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Despite the increased number of border crossings between France and Geneva, however, entry is only still allowed for Swiss citizens, people with a residence permit, and people who have to travel to Switzerland for professional reasons, including those commuting to their jobs in Geneva on daily basis.

An estimated 85,000 French frontaliers are employed in Geneva. At the cantonal university hospital (HUG), for instance, 60 percent of personnel comes from France.

More than 67,800 Italians also work in Ticino, with about 4,000 employed in the canton’s healthcare sector. However, there are no new re-openings on that border at this point. 

In all, 130 border crossing points had been closed across Switzerland due to the pandemic. At those that remain open, checks are carried out to ensure that only eligible people enter Switzerland.

While the Federal Council announced the progressive lifting of current restrictions, it did not say when all Switzerland's external borders, including entry from non-EU and Schengen area countries will fully re-open. 

READ MORE: Switzerland sets date to begin easing coronavirus lockdown measures 

Health Minister Alain Berset noted that the decision “is not only up to us”, implying that the final say belongs to the European Union.

While Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it belongs to the Schengen area — a bloc of 25 European countries, which abolished their internal borders for the free and unrestricted movement of people.

So far, the EU has not released the timeline for re-opening borders to non-essential travel from outside EU, calling for the current closures to stay in force until at least May 15th.