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EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland debating naturalisation – and what does it mean for you?

Cititzenship — or rather how to obtain it — is always a hot-button topic in Switzerland. This is what you should know about current proposals being debated by MPs and their chances of being enacted.

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland debating naturalisation - and what does it mean for you?
How will the new citizenship proposals affect you? Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Depending on a foreigner’s nationality, length of stay in Switzerland, and other circumstances, getting a Swiss citizenship can vary from relatively uncomplicated to onerous.

Admittedly, not each of the estimated 2.1 million foreign nationals living in Switzerland — about 25.1 percent of the population — wants to become a citizen. But those who do, frequently find numerous hurdles on their way, ranging from eligibility requirements to the application process itself, which varies from canton to canton. 

In 2019, the last year for which statistics are available, just over 41,000 foreigners received their Swiss passports.

Is there anything new on the naturalisation front?

This subject has been fuelling political debates for many years, and various proposals are being discussed now in both upper and lower chambers of the parliament.  

Five are currently being debated, according to the Watson news platform, which analysed this issue.

“Jus soli”

In Latin, this term means citizenship acquired when a child is born in Switzerland. Unlike many other countries, including the United States, those born of foreign parents in Switzerland don’t automatically obtain Swiss nationality.   

However, deputy Paul Rechsteiner from the Social Democratic Party submitted a parliamentary motion in March, arguing that anyone born in Switzerland should be automatically entitled to a Swiss passport.

Though this may sound reasonable, jus soli has no chance of succeeding in Switzerland, Thomas Kessler, former integration officer for the canton of Basel-Stadt told Watson.  

One of the reasons cited by Kessler: “The fear of childbirth tourism would be too great”.

However, legal scholar Barbara von Rütte considers this proposal to be difficult, but not hopeless.  

“If children of parents who have lived in Switzerland for five years are naturalised, the proposal has a better chance of succeeding than if every child simply born on Swiss soil is naturalised”, she said.

However, for this to happen, naturalisation of second-generation foreigners must be made easier.

As The Local reported in March, a Green Party MP Lisa Mazzone submitted such a proposal to the Council of States,  the upper house of the Federal Assembly, in March.

“We have to facilitate citizen integration, and that includes second generation foreigners, who have their roots here but are often without a Swiss passport”, Mazzone said.

This is not the first attempt to grant citizenships to Swiss-born foreigners.

The Federal Council presented similar proposals three times — in 1983, 1994 and 2003. They  were supported by a large majority in parliament but nothing came out of them in the end.

This time, however, the odds are better, especially since in 2017 the majority of voters approved easier naturalisation procedure of the third generation of foreigners.

“A survey by the Federal Statistical Office has shown that around 59 percent of respondents are in favour of automatic naturalisation for the second generation”, von Rütte pointed out.

READ MORE: ‘A feeling of belonging’: What it’s like to become Swiss

Naturalisation after obligatory education  

According to this proposal, which has been occasionally brought up in the parliament, children of foreign parents should have the right to naturalisation when they complete their compulsory schooling in Switzerland.

The chance of this motion succeeding is similar to that of second-generation foreigners — that means, fairly good. 

“It’s about children who grew up here and went to school. That can be conveyed well to the people”, von Rütte noted.

How to apply for Swiss citizenship: An essential guide

Naturalisation after four years

Another proposal is that everyone who has lived in Switzerland for four years should have the right to naturalisation regardless of their residence status.

In addition, children whose parents are domiciled in Switzerland when they are born should automatically receive the Swiss passport.

Thos is a proposal from a group called  “Aktion Vierviertel” composed mainly of professionals involved in migration, democracy and politics.

Experts estimate that it has chances of being enacted.  “When it comes to children who were born in Switzerland and whose parents already live in Switzerland, the potential for abuse is low”, von Rütte said. 

Kessler, however, pointed out  that “safeguards” would have to be  put in place, “for example an age-appropriate test”.

Naturalisation procedure at the federal level

In Switzerland, naturalisations are done on the grass-roots level: first the commune must approve the candidate, then the canton, and only then does the federal government have its say.

However, Social Democrats have launched a parliamentary initiative to forego the first two steps and have naturalisations done at the federal level only.

This doesn’t seem like a viable alternative, however,  according to Kessler. “Switzerland is built up from below up. If Bern were to suddenly decide who should be naturalised in a municipality, this could meet with resistance. Communities can’t be deprived of this autonomy”.

Kessler and von Rütte  both told the Watson that Switzerland is becoming more open to naturalisation issues.  “The mood towards migrants is much more positive than it was ten years ago. The debates about crime have come to an end; at the moment we are more likely to be discussing the lack of skilled workers”, Kessler said.

READ MORE: What does being ‘successfully integrated’ in Switzerland mean?

What types of naturalisations are currently in place in Switzerland?

There are two types: the simplified naturalisation process, which is open to foreign spouses of Swiss citizens or third-generation foreigners.

Everyone else has to go through the regular citizenship procedure.

However, as The Local explained on March 22nd, the simplified process is not that simple.

On the plus side, the procedures are faster and cheaper, and there is no need to go through all the steps required for ‘ordinary’ citizenships, including taking a difficult test.

But among the required conditions, it must be established “in a probable manner” that at least one of the applicant’s grandparents was born in Switzerland or that he or she acquired a right of residence in Switzerland.

“Imagine that you have to find this in undigitalised document of your deceased grandmother”,  said Walter Leimgruber, chairman of the Federal Migration Commission.

READ MORE: Naturalisation through marriage: How your partner can obtain Swiss citizenship

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OFFBEAT

Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”

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