In citizenship cases, Swiss direct democracy shows its cracks

Nancy Holten is annoying. She is so annoying in fact that residents of the small village in Switzerland she calls home voted, twice, to bar her from becoming Swiss.

In citizenship cases, Swiss direct democracy shows its cracks
Photos: AFP

The 45-year-old, with her long, flowing dark hair, was born in the Netherlands, but moved to Switzerland when she was just eight years old.

She speaks fluent Swiss German, her children are Swiss and she says she feels Swiss.

Read also: The huge foreigner-sized hole in Swiss democracy

“Switzerland is my home,” she told AFP in a recent interview in the small apartment she shares with her three teenage daughters in the northern village of Gipf-Oberfrick.

So when she finally got around to applying for citizenship back in 2015, she expected the process to be easy.

She was wrong.

As part of Switzerland's famous direct democratic system, some smaller municipalities leave naturalisation decisions up to a vote by the town assembly.

Critics say the system allows for more emotionally-charged and potentially more discriminatory decisions.

When Holten showed up for the vote in the village of around 3,500 inhabitants, her neighbours had turned out in unusually high numbers, to reject her.

Ban cowbells?

The outspoken vegan and animal rights activist had rubbed many in the small, conservative community up the wrong way with her alternative lifestyle and vocal criticism of the ultimate Swiss symbols: the cowbell.

“These bells hurt their ears,” she said, picking up a heavy brass cowbell she had purchased.

She passed the colourfully embroidered strap over her head, and covered her ears as the bell clanged loudly around her neck.

“I don't mind traditions as long as they don't hurt anyone,” said Holten, who also angered many with calls for silencing the village church bells at night.

“I guess I made too much noise for people,” she said.

In the village assembly, many railed against her, booed those who came to her defence and overwhelmingly rejected her citizenship application.

“Emotions ran a bit high,” said Urs Treier, a spokesman for the village administration, which in vain had urged the inhabitants to allow Holten to become Swiss.

Holten appealed the vote to the regional authorities in Aargau Canton, who asked the village assembly to vote again.

The result? Even more people turned out to reject Holten, with the media dubbing her “too annoying” to receive citizenship.


“It was painful,” she acknowledged. “I cried. It was very hard.”

But her persistence paid off. Holten appealed again, and this time the canton overturned the decision, and last year she became Swiss.

The case is among several that have raised questions about the pertinence of applying the direct democratic principal in naturalisation cases.

Across Switzerland, citizenship decisions are first taken locally, then approved at the cantonal level and finally at the federal level.

“The most decisive stage is the municipal level,” Anita Manatschal, a political scientist at Neuchatel University, told AFP.

The vast majority of municipalities leave the decision up to the town administration or a committee, but some, like Gipf-Oberfrick, continue to give all townspeople a say.

A few years ago, a family from Kosovo saw their citizenship request rejected by an assembly in the village of Bubendorf in Basel Canton, with some reportedly arguing they did not “act” Swiss because they often wore tracksuits, and not jeans.

While such decisions raise questions about the legitimacy of the system, experts argue they are increasingly rare.

Andreas Bamert-Rizzo, of the Aargau cantonal authority, told AFP that the canton is asked by municipalities to grant around 2,000 naturalisations annually, but receives only a handful of appeals of local level decisions.

Accusations of discrimination were far more common around the turn of the century, when some Swiss towns permitted referenda using anonymous ballots to determine citizenship requests.


That practice was upended in 2003, when the Supreme Court overturned a controversial referendum in the small town of Emmen in Lucerne Canton, which rejected 48 nationality bids — nearly all submitted by people from the former Yugoslavia — finding it discriminatory.

Manatschal pointed to research showing that in the cases prior to the court decision where referenda were used for nationality decisions, the rejection rate on average was 18.4 percent.

That compares to 4.9 percent when the decision was taken by a town assembly and a mere 2.1 percent when a town's executive branch made the call, she said.

“The leeway for discrimination was very problematic until 2003,” she said, stressing, though, that “it seems to be fairer since then.”

“Laws, not random subjective preferences, should decide whether a person should be naturalised or not,” she said.

Holten agrees.

In the year since she became Swiss, she has joined the regional chapter of the Pirate Party, and is vying for a parliamentary seat in cantonal elections in October.

“If I am elected, I will raise this question of access to citizenship,” she said.

“I think communal authorities should decide, and not the inhabitants, who are more likely to let their emotions rule.”

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EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about Swiss language tests for residency

The language standards for permanent residency is different than that for citizenship. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about Swiss language tests for residency

Whether granting permanent residency or citizenship, whether you are ‘successfully integrated’ is the major question for Swiss authorities. 

Being successfully integrated means that they “should participate in the economic, social and cultural life of society”, according to the State Secretariat for Migration.

Reader question: What does being ‘successfully integrated’ in Switzerland mean?

Speaking a Swiss language is crucial. While you will not need to speak a Swiss language when you arrive, you will need to demonstrate a certain degree of language proficiency in order to stay long term. 

However, the level of language proficiency differs depending on the type of residency permission you want: residency permit, permanent residency or Swiss citizenship. 

This is outlined in the following table.

Image: Swiss State Secretariat for Migration

Image: Swiss State Secretariat for Migration

What does proficiency in a Swiss language mean?

Proficiency in a Swiss language refers to any of the major Swiss languages: Italian, German, French and Romansh. While Romansh is also a Swiss language, it is not spoken elsewhere and is only spoken by a handful of people in the canton of Graubünden. 

There are certain exceptions to these requirements for citizens of countries where these languages are spoken, as has been outlined here

English, while widely spoken in Switzerland, is not an official language of Switzerland and English proficiency will not grant you Swiss citizenship. 

Moving to Switzerland, it may appear you have three world languages to choose from, although by and large this is not the case. 

As the tests are done at a communal level, the language in the commune in question is the one you need to speak

Therefore, if you have flawless French and live in the German-speaking canton of Schwyz, you need to improve your German in order to make sure you pass the test. 

While some Swiss cantons are bilingual, this is comparatively rare at a municipal level. 

A Swiss Federal Supreme Court case from 2022 held that a person is required to demonstrate language proficiency in the administrative language of the municipality in which they apply, even if they are a native speaker of a different Swiss language. 

What Swiss language standards are required for a residency permit?

Fortunately for new arrivals, you do not need to show Swiss language proficiency. 

Generally speaking, those on short-term residency permits – such as B Permits and L Permits – are not required to show proficiency in a national language. 

There are some exceptions – for instance people on family reunification permits – however by and large people who have just arrived in Switzerland for work do not need to demonstrate language proficiency. 

What Swiss language standards are required for permanent residency?

While ‘permanent residency’ might sound like ‘residency permit’, it grants a far greater set of rights for the holder – and with it a more extensive array of responsibilities. 

EXPLAINED: What’s the difference between permanent residence and Swiss citizenship?

One of these obligations is Swiss language proficiency. 

For ordinary permanent residency – which is granted after an uninterrupted stay of five years or ten years in total – you need to demonstrate A2 level of a spoken Swiss language and A1 written. 

Citizens of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain are exempt from these language requirements. 

For fast-tracked permanent residency, the language level is a little higher. 

You must demonstrate A1 written but B1 spoken. 

There are also exceptions for people who can demonstrate they have a Swiss language as their mother tongue, or that they have attended compulsory schooling for a minimum of three years in a Swiss language. 

Demonstrating language proficiency must be done through an accredited test centre. The accreditation process is handled at a cantonal level. More information is available here

What Swiss language standard is required for citizenship?

The standard is slightly higher for citizenship than for permanent residency. 

Candidates must demonstrate A2 level writing ability and B1 spoken skills. This is the level set out in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

These rules, which came into effect on January 1st, 2019, set up a uniform minimum level of language proficiency required on a federal basis. 

Previously, there was no consistency in language testing, with many cantons in the French-language region making a judgment based on the candidate’s oral skills.

Cantons are free to set a higher bar if they wish, as Thurgau has done by requiring citizenship candidates to have B1-level written German and B2 (upper intermediate) spoken German. The rules are also stricter in St Gallen and Schwyz. 

More information is available at the following link. 

Naturalisation: How well must I speak a Swiss language for citizenship?