Expatriates have joined forces at the Swiss embassy in London for the first in a series of discussions to explore serious issues concerning Swiss abroad.
For the past few months Swiss citizens living in Britain have been encouraged to express their thoughts on the title of the forum, “What does Switzerland do for the Swiss abroad – could it do more?”
The three most pressing topics discussed at the weekend by the Federation of Swiss Societies in Britain (FOSSUK) and the New Helvetic Society related to the recent introduction of biometric passports, the impact of financial cutbacks on overseas citizens and voting outside Switzerland.
It soon became clear many people still needed to be convinced that government and parliamentarians in Bern were taking into account the interests of the Swiss abroad.
The process of registering data for biometric passports, which became law at the beginning of March, was considered by some as inefficient and extremely complicated.
The problem for many Swiss abroad is that they have to travel to the Swiss representation equipped with a digital photograph and fingerprints.
Yves Guisan, a former Swiss parliamentarian and now honorary consul for Switzerland in Gibraltar, described how for some people this meant a major trip.
“I’ve had Swiss citizens come up to me asking why they have to travel to London to have their passport renewed,” he told swissinfo.ch. “They feel this is unreasonably onerous and expensive, especially as they don’t even receive the passport immediately.”
A further example cited was of people living in Malta who have to travel to Rome just to have their fingerprints registered.
Document of identification
Although it is not necessary to change passports straightaway and all previously issued documents are valid until they run out, there was obviously concern that the elderly and disabled were beginning to feel alienated by the new procedures. Some people felt unable to travel great distances for either physical or financial reasons.
For many Swiss living abroad, the passport is more than just a travel document; for the older generation, especially, the passport is seen as their only document of identification.
One suggestion was to set up a mobile passport-issuing unit.
Rudolf Wyder, director of the Organisation of Swiss Abroad (OSA), stressed the importance of Switzerland collaborating more with other European countries, probably Schengen nations.
“Swiss people should be able to go to their nearest consulate if it is closer than the Swiss representation to have the required face-to-face appointment with officials for the necessary registration of data,” he said.
“These details would then be transmitted to Switzerland and used to authorise a Swiss biometric passport.”
Recent figures from Switzerland’s foreign ministry reveal an estimated 700,000 Swiss citizens live abroad. Of those, 500,000 are eligible to vote yet only one in four is registered with a Swiss commune to take part in elections and referendums.
Concerns were raised as to the relatively low rate of electoral participation. It was concluded that many potential voters did not get enough information from the various political parties to help them decide how they should vote.
It was suggested that a possible solution could be the creation of a website where all the political parties could post their policies on various subjects allowing voters abroad to make their own balanced judgement on particular issues. It was hoped this would lead to a higher level of participation from the expat community in the political arena.
The perceived scarcity of information about upcoming elections and voting led to the question of whether the Swiss government still valued the influence of the Swiss abroad.
There was a general feeling that the opinions of Swiss abroad were not taken into account sufficiently and that the government, especially in budget matters, forgot that Switzerland had an interest and a constitutional duty in keeping up the contacts with Swiss abroad.
Guisan criticised the financial restraints being imposed on information and media outlets, specifically aimed at those living abroad.
“It is unacceptable that the Swiss Review has had its output reduced from six issues a year to four and swissinfo is reportedly facing major cuts,” he said.
He stressed it was not only because of their own interests and needs to be informed that Swiss expats were concerned about recent cutbacks.
“There are fears Switzerland will disappear from the international stage if it doesn’t communicate any more with the world. Switzerland seems to want to isolate itself even more,” he said.
There was a general feeling that the impact of Switzerland abroad could decrease, which would have economic and cultural consequences, which would have a direct impact on the prosperity of Swiss people themselves.
Wyder agreed that the Swiss abroad were not really very much in the minds of parliamentarians or the government, but it would be wrong to say the government would like to cut back the influence of Swiss abroad and Swiss politics.
“There are budget cuts all over. Those abroad are not the only ones who suffer,” he said. “We must not think we are the only ones being put under budgetary constraints.”
He encouraged those attending the forum to make more use of the four delegates from the Council of the Swiss Abroad, the legislative body of OSA, as a platform to lobby parliamentarians in Bern.
“It’s a matter of defending the presence of Switzerland in the world. We must communicate this more actively and make parliamentarians more aware of our existence.”
Andrew Littlejohn in London, swissinfo.ch
According to the Swiss foreign ministry, 676,176 Swiss lived abroad in 2008 (+1.2% on 2007), compared with 7.6 million residents in Switzerland.
124,399 expatriates aged over 18 have registered to vote, an increase of 4.2%.
Since 1992 Swiss abroad have the right to take part in federal votes/elections via mail from abroad.
More than 40 Swiss abroad candidates stood for the October 21 parliamentary elections. In 2003, just 17 people living abroad stood for election.
There is currently no Swiss expatriate in parliament.
Council of the Swiss Abroad
The Council of the Swiss Abroad is made up of 160 representatives of the expatriate community and of public life in Switzerland.
The assembly, which meets twice a year, is the senior body of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA).
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