OPINION: Switzerland’s denial of voting rights to foreigners motivated by fear

Fribourg-based journalist Clare O'Dea discusses why the continued denial of suffrage to foreigners is an injustice "in a country with a history of disenfranchising large segments of the population."

A sign in the western Swiss canton of Vaud reminding people of a referendum on Sunday. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
A sign in the western Swiss canton of Vaud reminding people of a referendum on Sunday. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

It is incredible how complacent Switzerland is about the fact that one in four residents does not have the right to vote. There is no action plan to address the issue, and no great concern about the moral implications of this exclusion or the impact on social cohesion.

The country has a history of disenfranchising large segments of the population, shamefacedly marking a mere 50 years of the women’s vote last year.

EXPLAINED: What happened after Swiss women got the right to vote in 1971?

But parallels between women’s voting rights and voting rights for foreigners, drawn by some campaigners, do not seem to have caught the public imagination.  

The high percentage of foreigners (25 per cent) is seen as an inevitable fact of life. As if Switzerland just can’t be help being so attractive. However, these so-called foreigners include a large proportion of Swiss-born residents, people who would not be considered foreign in other countries. 

The vast majority of European Union countries have a foreign population below 10 per cent. Not including Luxembourg, Austria has the highest share in the EU at 16 per cent. Yes, Switzerland has a had a historically high rate of immigration but what really makes the country an outlier is its strict naturalisation policy that keeps foreigners artificially foreign.

One way to expand the circle of voters and make Switzerland more democratic would be to actually grant federal voting rights to foreigners who meet certain residency conditions. A small number of cantons are leading the way in this regard.

Neuchâtel and Jura have given the right to vote to foreign citizens, subject to certain conditions, but not the right to run for election.  

How to apply for Swiss citizenship: An essential guide

The cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura have granted foreign residents the right to vote and to be elected at communal level. Basel City, Graubünden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden are following this model too but the uptake by their communes is patchy. 

Again, at communal level, the canton of Geneva grants the right to vote and the right to elect but not to be elected. And that’s it. Most foreigners in Switzerland are simply not included in the political process at any level.

Another more efficient way to extend voting rights to more people would be to redefine some foreigners as Swiss. Their Swissness is already obvious in the right light – it’s just not officially recognised. 

Because of the onerous, lengthy and expensive naturalisation procedure, people remain technically foreign for much too long, in many cases for life. 

At the very least, Switzerland could initiate a citizenship recruitment drive to make sure all the people who could be Swiss under the current rules are encouraged to come into the fold through naturalisation. 

READ MORE: Switzerland marks 50 years of women voting

But this would require a fundamental shift in how naturalisation is perceived. The system would need to change from a restrictive fear-based approach to a completely different, more welcoming ethos. 

The government’s position on naturalisation is clear.

“Only those who are successfully integrated and present no danger to Switzerland’s internal or external security should be granted Swiss citizenship.”

This statement was given last year in response to a failed parliamentary motion seeking to introduce citizenship by birth in the country – the jus solis principle. The same language is used across official publications. 

Notice the word ‘danger’. This, along with the wonderfully-subjective term ‘integration’, makes the process intimidating by design. The rationale for the high barriers to naturalisation, including an examination of each application individually, with interviews, is to root out the bad apples.

The problem is that this officious and suspicious approach also deters good potential citizens from coming forward. 

When 30 per cent of births in Switzerland are to two foreign parents, this is not a marginal issue. Those babies are an essential gift to Switzerland, ready to be loyal to their homeland but kept at arm’s length with the label ‘foreign’. 

READ MORE: Would you pass the Swiss citizenship test?

With all the talk of integration, Swiss officialdom is missing the most important integration tool of all – having a Swiss child in the family. Growing up feeling that you belong, not feeling that you have to prove you belong. Is that too much to ask? 

There is a false perception that anyone who hasn’t navigated the rocky path to citizenship has chosen to exclude themselves from political participation. This ignores the barriers deliberately put in place to keep the numbers of new citizens low. 

There is also a class element to this, where only families with a higher level of income, connections and education have the resources to pursue naturalisation. 

Switzerland stands out as having the most restrictive naturalisation policy in Europe. Since the law on citizenship was tightened in 2018, even fewer people than before are successfully proving their worthiness to be Swiss. Only 25,600 people became Swiss through naturalisation last year. Not much out of a population of 2.1 million foreigners.

Swiss politicians and voters steadfastly keep the barriers to naturalisation high. Why? Because all the emphasis is on the value of Swiss citizenship and too little value is placed on future citizens themselves who are actually a win for the country. 

One of the flaws of direct democracy is that there is an inbuilt disincentive to broaden the pool of voters.

Sadly, as long as Swiss voters are afraid of their neighbours with foreign surnames having a say in how their shared society is run, nothing will change. 

READ MORE: The nine most surprising questions on Switzerland’s citizenship exam

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Switzerland refuses to make it easier to become Swiss

Switzerland's Federal Council rejected a motion by some MPs to make the process of obtaining Swiss citizenship easier for certain foreigners.

Switzerland refuses to make it easier to become Swiss

In view of the low naturalisation rate in Switzerland, MP Katja Christ from the Green Liberal party has filed a motion asking to revise the minimum length of stay required to obtain Swiss citizenship from 10 to seven years.

Christ also pointed out that the naturalisation process itself, especially on the municipal level, should be revamped.

That is because such a procedure sometimes involves discriminatory decisions by the communal assembly, which are based on the candidate’s origin rather than his or her eligibility for citizenship, she said.

The government responded that any denial of naturalisation believed by the candidate to be unjustified can be appealed.

Another MP, Corina Gredig, also asked to lower the minimum length of stay required by the cantons for naturalisation from the current five to three years, arguing that many people move from one canton before the five-year term.

READ MORE: Which Swiss cantons have the strictest citizenship requirements?

However, on Thursday the Federal Council rejected the motions, saying that a revised legislation on foreigners went into effect in 2019, so fairly recently, and the issues brought up in the two recent motions were already addressed at that time.

During the debates leading up to the new legislation, the parliament refused to reduce the minimum length of stay in Switzerland to eight years and in cantons  three years, authorities said.

The law lays out criteria not only for naturalisation, but also for integration in general, as well as for conditions to receive work permits in Switzerland, which include the need to provide certificates from government-accredited institutions to prove language proficiency.

READ MORE: Work permits: Switzerland introduces new rules for language proficiency certificates

The refusal to lighten up naturalisation requirements comes amid ongoing discussions in Switzerland about how to make this process easier for third-generation foreigners who are eligible to become Swiss.

Unlike many other countries, being born in Switzerland doesn’t automatically mean the person is Swiss.

If their parents were born abroad and still hold foreign passports, a person will not obtain Swiss citizenship at birth. 

Even though they were born in Switzerland and have lived their entire lives in Switzerland, they have the same nationality as their parents and will continue to be considered as foreigners – until and unless they become naturalised.

However, this process is more complex than it seems, as it is unreasonably bureaucratic, requiring proof that is often difficult to obtain.

EXPLAINED: Why so few third-generation Swiss are actually ‘Swiss’?

As a result of these strict conditions, very few third-generation foreigners become Swiss: out of about 25,000 people in this category, only 1,847 received their Swiss passports at the end of 2020 — the last year for which official statistics are available.

“There should be political will to implement change, which is not the case”, Rosita Fibbi, migration sociologist at the Swiss Forum for the Study of Migration and Population at the University of Neuchâtel, told The Local in an interview on May 4th.

“No significant steps to make the process truly easier have been introduced to date”; she added.

The latest Federal Council decision  not to act on the recent motions means no relief is in sight on the naturalisation front.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why so many foreigners in Switzerland skip naturalisation?