Last week’s front page story by Pamela Taylor on the risk of massive fines for cross-border driving with Swiss or EU-licensed vehicles has produced more vehement reader interest than any Le News story so far. It also appears that such problems are nothing new, but have been a relatively unknown fact of life for years. Furthermore, most people do not seem to be aware that such legislation exists.
Basically, as we understand it, any EU resident driving a non-EU registered car – i.e. Swiss – across the border without declaring it, may be accused of trafficking. The Swiss, too, apparently, have similar restrictions. The end result could be a whopping bill combining a fine and the VAT based on the vehicle’s value. There appear to be some exceptions, such as the right to drive a car rental across the border, but even these variations remain unclear. As one reader put it: “The whole area (driving licenses and car registrations) is a complete legal minefield, with the potential for large numbers of people to be caught breaking laws they are unaware of.”
Despite the problems caused by the 9 February, 2014 Swiss anti-mass migration vote, the whole point of EU/Swiss bilateral accords is to make life easier in Europe, whether for tourism or business, or simply cross-border shopping. An EU resident visiting Switzerland and borrowing the car of a Swiss-based friend or relative should not have worry about whether he or she has the right to cross the border on a day trip. Or whether renting a Swiss-registered car at Geneva airport – even this is not straight-forward – could cause problems for an EU business person driving to Lyons for a meeting.
It is unlikely that any of these people are part of a vehicle trafficking cartel. As one Swiss Garde Frontier official on a clandestine cross-border stakeout near Geneva recently noted: “We know the traffickers, usually of stolen goods, and they’re not local residents.” The fact, too, that second-hand cars are far cheaper in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands makes it improbable that anyone is going to seriously indulge in smuggling cars from Switzerland. This is more the domain of highly organized, out-of-country mafia rings, and usually concern stolen luxury vehicles.
The reality is that numerous frontaliers, but also ordinary residents or visitors throughout Europe, risk harassment and fines by unknowingly breaking such rules every day. One problem is that Swiss and EU customs offices, whether French, Austrian, Italian or German, are completely failing to inform drivers in a clear and unobtrusive manner. There are no signs at any border.
Simply to assume that drivers should inform themselves beforehand about a rules they know nothing about, or, for that matter, cannot understand is, for many taxpayers, unacceptable. The Swiss do not hesitate to post reminders along the highways or at frontier crossings that any visitor driving a Swiss autoroute needs to purchase a CHF 40 vignette beforehand – and to display it. So it is possible.
The real issue, however, is that both Switzerland and the EU need to trash this restrictive legislation in favour of less complicated reciprocity. This includes the urgent need to legalise the sensible use of car driving in Europe, regardless in which country one is resident. Perhaps then, customs officials and frontier police could focus on the real culprits at hand.