The vice president of pro-immigrant organization Secondos Plus has infuriated far-right politicians and others in Switzerland with his “humorous” calls for a new Swiss flag, contributor Meritxell Mir reports.  

"/> The vice president of pro-immigrant organization Secondos Plus has infuriated far-right politicians and others in Switzerland with his “humorous” calls for a new Swiss flag, contributor Meritxell Mir reports.  

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SVP to immigrants: Don’t mess with the Swiss flag

The vice president of pro-immigrant organization Secondos Plus has infuriated far-right politicians and others in Switzerland with his “humorous” calls for a new Swiss flag, contributor Meritxell Mir reports.  

SVP to immigrants: Don’t mess with the Swiss flag

What started as a joke to provoke reflection on Swiss values has turned into a nightmare for Ivica Petrusic and Secondos Plus, an association for children of immigrants born in the country.

More than a month ago, Petrusic, the vice president of the lobby group, suggested the cross should be removed from the Swiss flag to bring it more in line with today’s “multicultural Switzerland.” In two recent interviews, Petrusic sought to defuse the issue. Instead, debate flared anew and now Petrusic faces threats from groups on the extreme-right.

During the presentation of the association’s candidates for the National Council on August 23rd, Petrusic made a remark about the city of Aarau, where he lives, and which once was the short-lived capital of the Helvetian Republic. There, for a short period in Switzerland’s history, foreigners had the right to vote. Afterwards, he brought up the former flag of the Confederation, a three-striped banner in green, red and yellow. The next day, his remarks made it into the news and were reported in the manner he insists they were intended: as a joke.

“All Petrusic was trying to do was get people’s attention through humour in order to make them reflect on the values of Switzerland, the past and the future,” Daniel Ordás, a Secondos Plus board member, told The Local. The association has more than 400 members, and the majority hold a Swiss passport.

But three weeks later the Aargauer Zeitung, a local newspaper, followed up and again asked Petrusic about the flag. Instead of explaining that it was a humorous way to bring up the issue of integration in Switzerland, the 34-year-old Christian Bosnian Croat made further remarks that added fuel to the fire.

He said that the old tricolour “represented a progressive Switzerland, open to the world,” as opposed to the current banner which “no longer corresponds with today’s multicultural Switzerland” because the country “has great religious and cultural diversity.” All hell broke loose. 

It did not matter that Secondos Plus issued a statement saying that it was all a misunderstanding, and that it was not the organization’s goal to change the national flag. The damage was done.

Despite the clarification, it did not take too long for the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to launch a media campaign against Secondos Plus. Immigration is the cornerstone of its political platform and an ad taken out by the SVP and published on Monday in the Swiss media read: “Immigrants, more and more shameless every day!”

Yvette Estermann, an SVP lawmaker, said the statement made by Petrusic shows “disrespect” towards Switzerland. She wondered “if the next thing will be to abolish Christian churches” in the country.

“As a way of getting people’s attention, it is a good move, but the problem is that this group is involved in politics, so this is outrageous,” said Estermann, an immigrant from Slovakia herself.

“It is unacceptable that immigrants give orders to their host country on what it has to do,” she told The Local. Estermann also leads the conservative immigrants group Neu Heimat Schweiz (Switzerland New Homeland).

For Marianne Binder-Keller, spokeswoman for the Christian-Democratic People’s Party (CVP), Petrusic’s meaning was clear. “I don’t think it was a joke, they were for real,” she said. “But they were later shocked about the reaction it provoked.”

Ordás, however, says that the conservatives should not protest so much, since Petrusic’s gaffe will likely garner them a lot of votes. “The biggest problem here is that this is something that everyone in the SVP wanted to be true because they needed a new reason to bring immigration back into their campaign,” said the executive member of Secondos Plus. “It has been a gift to them.

But beyond politics, there are deeper worries for Secondos Plus since the story started circulating in religious and extreme-right forums on the internet across the globe.

“We have received hundreds of e-mails with insults, requests for us to leave the country, and threats, including a dozen death threats against our vice president,” said Ordás. “Petrusic is quite scared and wants to stay away from public focus because we are taking these threats very seriously.” Still, threats will not prevent Secondos Plus from staying in politics, he added.  

“They should not make too much of the death threats they are getting because every politician, including myself, gets them,” Binder-Keller said.

But what hurts Secondos Plus’s members most, said Ordás, is the correspondence from immigrants who call them “idiots” for having given votes in the upcoming general elections to the far-right SVP, which claimed 29 percent of the vote at the last parliamentary elections in 2007.  

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How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

How Europe's population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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