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Opinion and Analysis For Members

OPINION: Why it's almost impossible for foreigners to become fully integrated Swiss citizens

Clare O'Dea
Clare O'Dea - [email protected]
OPINION: Why it's almost impossible for foreigners to become fully integrated Swiss citizens
The Swiss passport. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Applicants for Swiss citizenship are asked to prove a stellar level of integration into Swiss society. This makes the naturalisation process slow and intimidating - which is no accident, writes Clare O’Dea.

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Foreigners come and go and are plentiful, too plentiful. Being a Swiss citizen, however, is viewed by the Swiss as an exceptional and complex role, not suitable for everybody.  

The onus is on you the applicant to prove yourself exceptional enough to be Swiss, in naturalisation-speak, “successfully integrated”. It’s a high bar that you probably won’t fully reach but you need to at least show that you’ve made a good effort. 

A relatively small pool of people go through the naturalisation process – around 35,000 per year out of 2.2 million foreigners. You can only apply for ordinary naturalisation in Switzerland when you have lived in the country for 10 years and you are in a financially solid position. The requirements have the effect of disqualifying people with less money or education. 

Those who qualify for the simplified naturalisation route, including spouses of Swiss citizens, also have to prove they are sufficiently integrated into Swiss life. 

READ ALSO: Would you pass a Swiss citizenship test?

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An array of requirements 

The thing is that the authorities know that anyone who submits all the relevant paperwork and passes the language or local knowledge tests is sufficiently integrated. But they’re looking for something more, a certain je ne sais quoi, something that will make them feel good about sharing the great honour of citizenship. 

This will come out in the all-important interview or interviews. It could be your involvement in the community through volunteering, or it could be knowing the names of the statues in your town square, or being friends with someone the interviewer went to school with. It could be something in your attitude, a certain humility or enthusiasm. They’ll recognise it when they see it; you’ll be none the wiser until you get your decision letter.  

I mentioned the paperwork and tests. When you see the requirements, you understand why it’s mainly highly-qualified, financially secure people who advance along the track to citizenship. 

People walk in Bern's main station.

People walk in Bern's main station. https://www.thelocal.de/20221121/german-disaster-office-warns-of-regional-power-supply-interruptions-in-early-2023/

The State Secretariat for Migration gives a definition of integration, most of which is amply covered by the documents you have to submit. Not surprisingly, the financial requirements loom large. 

You can expect to have to submit about a dozen documents. These include certificates that can be purchased from different official offices, like a confirmation of residency, confirmation of no criminal record and certificates to show you have not been pursued for unpaid debts. 

As well as that, you’ll need the usual civil documents, character references, proof that your taxes are up to date, pay slips and so on. 

Not only are you not allowed to have claimed social assistance benefits in the three years before applying, you must have repaid in full any social assistance benefits claimed while living in Switzerland.  

READ ALSO: Which parts of Switzerland naturalise the most foreign residents?

As for language, you are supposed to be able to communicate in a national language in everyday situations. Most cantons require a language test for the ordinary procedure. This is known to be a major barrier for some immigrants who may speak Swiss languages in their everyday life but are completely out of their comfort zone when it comes to written or oral tests. 

Swiss citizenship is gained by descent or naturalisation, not by being born on the national territory. Currently, a quarter of the population is foreign, one of the highest rates in Europe. That’s one in four residents of Switzerland who don’t have the right to vote. 

The irony is that voter turnout is comparatively low in Switzerland, where it rarely goes above 50 per cent. So the Swiss themselves are not ideal Swiss citizens, considering many of them don’t vote, get into debt, pay their taxes late, need social assistance and don’t know their statues.  

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Nevertheless, under the bottom-heavy direct democracy system, voters ultimately have more power than parliament or the government. Because of this dynamic, every new voter essentially dilutes the voting power held by the rest. 

If all of those foreigners became Swiss, the current pool of Swiss voters would have less say over how the country is run at federal, cantonal and local level. But don’t worry, that’s not going to happen. The pool of voters is expanding slowly and carefully through restrictive naturalisation. 

A person studying

Applicants for Swiss citizenship have to prove their language skills. Photo by lilartsy on Unsplash

The integration problem 

Testing people's degree of integration by interview can be a cover for arbitrary and unreasonable treatment, with little accountability, unless an extreme case hits the headlines. At best, it’s a wasteful charade. 

Of course, there are nice stories of friendly, informal officials who wave people through. You might live in a commune where they like your “sort” or where you’ve built up personal connections that work in your favour. 

But no-one should have to face the fickleness of a personal assessment which can quickly turn into humiliation when someone is trying to pry or catch you out. The naturalisation process gives nosy officials carte blanche to be intrusive.

READ ALSO: Eight thing you should know about applying for Swiss citizenship

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Sadly, the naturalisation system is based on suspicion. It is designed to root out the bad apples and the financially vulnerable, and therefore demands complete openness from applicants. This is partly why long-term foreign residents are voting with their feet by not applying. 

The classic 1978 Swiss comedy film Die Schweizermacher (The Swissmakers) poked fun at two immigration officers, who made themselves ridiculous as they went around snooping on applicants for Swiss citizenship. Have we really progressed? 

I’d like to put myself forward as a Schweizermacherin. Give me the files and I’ll clear the backlog in a fraction of the time. If you can’t read the effort, goodwill and patience in those pages, you’re choosing not to see it.  

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