Swiss vote on naturalisation - can you make fondue?

May 31st, 2008 - 10:07 am ICT by admin  

By Heather Lima
Berne (Switzerland), May 31 (DPA) Swiss voters go to the polls Sunday to determine whether the people at large should have the final say over which foreign nationals should be entitled to a Swiss passport. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party UDC/SVP claims Switzerland is too soft on naturalisation and wants communes to decide either by panel decisions, public assembly or secret ballot without the right of appeal.

The secret ballot was outlawed by the Federal Court in 2003 after considering appeals by immigrants who had been refused. It was deemed unfair.

The cases stemmed from decisions made between 1999-2003 by voters in Emmen near Lucerne where 97 applicants, mostly from Balkan states, were refused Swiss passports although they met all the criteria.

Some communes or local authorities now use elected panels or a combination of panel and public assemblies, with the power of veto, to decide citizenship applications. Some cantons, including Berne, Vaud and Valais, insist decisions are taken by the executive.

The UDC/SVP launched an initiative to counter the Federal Court’s ruling and has forced Sunday’s nationwide vote on the issue. To promote it, a controversial poster campaign shows hands grabbing Swiss passports, many of them with coloured skin.

The party was accused of racism over a poster last year showing a black sheep being kicked out of a Swiss field in a campaign to deport foreigners guilty of committing crimes on Swiss soil.

It claims too many Swiss passports are issued - the number of naturalisations has more than doubled over a decade to 45,042 in 2007.

However, opponents of the move say the rate of approval is still lower than other European countries. It is 2.4 percent compared with 4.1 percent in the Netherlands, 4.9 percent in France and 8.2 percent in Sweden.

According to the Federal Office of Migration, around 20 percent of applications are refused, but the figure can rise to 50 percent in some communes.

Foreigners wishing to gain Swiss citizenship are already subject to rigorous scrutiny to see if they fit the bill.

First they need to have been resident in the country for 12 years. Candidates must show that they are integrated into Swiss society, comply with Swiss law and pose no threat to internal or external security.

The procedure can involve a visit from police to an applicant’s home, questions in the workplace to an employer or neighbours. If there are children, inquiries are also made at schools.

One former member of Geneva’s naturalization commission told how he remembers colleagues reporting on the decor or cleanliness of homes.

The aim is to see if an applicant matches preconceptions of Swissness, to see if they have mastered one of the national languages and are familiar with Swiss politics and history.

Some communes ask applicants to tell the story of folk hero William Tell, ask if they can sing the national anthem or even inquire whether they know how to make fondue - a Swiss national dish.

Even in communes where the UDC/SVP is in power, there has been some reluctance to go back to the ballot box, which is considered inefficient.

In Emmen where disputed decisions prompted the court ruling in the first place there is not total support for the move.

“It is easier for a committee to examine the applications and candidates,” Hans Schwegler, president of the local branch of the People’s Party, told Swiss radio.

But he says the Federal Court ban is an infringement of citizens’ rights. “In Emmen the people might still decide that a committee should do the job, but it’s up to the people to decide,” he said.

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