Welcome to Switzerland (conditionally)

(I started writing this post in 2011. I know, I’m a bit behind on some stuff!)

Along with most other households in Switzerland, I received a pre-printed flyer from the nationalistic Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP) at the end of last week. (Obviously the person delivering them didn’t bother to check the foreign name on the post box, in our case.) The flyer has been timed to coincide with the Swiss national day on Monday, and encourages Swiss nationals to join their crusade to limit or even eliminate the effect that foreigners have on Swiss life. I thought it’d be interesting to write about the concerns raised, from the point of view of a long-term resident.

I have been living in Switzerland for a little over ten years now, and Jo joined me here in 2006. In our time here, we have contributed steadily to the national pot by paying our taxes, contributing to the welfare of the state through various salary deductions, helped fill the pockets of Swiss insurance companies, banks, doctors’ practices and many other businesses besides. We adhere to even the most obtuse and outmoded rules of residence, we have bent over backwards to fit in by both integrating with our neighbours and work colleagues, and learning not just “high” German but also – and in my case, primarily – the local dialect. My website, which has been online almost as a free advertisement for Swiss tourism destinations for years, is run at my own expense and I have even contributed to promote Swiss tourism through my day job and in private efforts, at my own cost, throughout my time here.

The arguments raised by the SVP range around the central principle that Switzerland should limit – or even in the most severe case, exclude – foreign residents. The leading paragraph in their document reiterates the independence which has helped Switzerland to remain financially strong throughout many financial crises, most recently staying independent from the European Union and ensuring that the welfare of the country and its citizens remains stronger than it would otherwise be.

The document refers to the fact that the country has phased out the national consensus on immigration policy, through which the populus voted on the numbers of foreigners allowed to reside in the country. According to the document, this has resulted in roads becoming overfilled, to the fact that flats have become unbearably expensive for “many Swiss”, and to many businesses being forced to accept foreign workers, to the detriment of the systems of social support.

The fact that crime rates increase steadily (although remaining lower than in many other EU states) is attributed squarely to immigrants and the abuse of asylum rights. In my time here, I’ve heard and experience national racism from many Swiss, although I’m glad to say that the majority of the people I know are happy to accept both me and Jo, when it’s evident that I contribute to the country in almost as many ways as a national would. (The only exceptions being military service and political activity.)

I wrote a couple of years ago about how I feel in regards to my residence and my position hasn’t changed since then. I am a foreigner here, I don’t hold a Swiss passport and I would seriously question my motives before applying for one. I respect the rights of the Swiss to decide how their immigration policy is managed, even if the Swiss themselves no longer have this right thanks to decisions made by their government.

The points which the SVP make seem, to a British person, as extreme. The heavy black text and scaremongering tactics do seem to work, though, as many of the SVP’s propositions are accepted by a scarily large number of those eligible to vote. Once one gets past the scaremongering headline, though, some of the points are actually less provocative than they first appear. The provocative approach is an attention-grabber, for sure, which presumably aims to get more younger people to express their opinions and take part in national matters.

The current demand is for the right to limit the number of immigrants to be returned to the people, via consensus. A reasonable principle. Also, that the right to limit the number of immigrants be reintroduced on a stricter basis. Again, a fair request, in order to ensure that communities’ facilities aren’t laden past their capacity. That Swiss job applicants should have priority over foreign applicants is a grey area, although I understood this was already the case. (It certainly was when I first moved here.)

That a residence application should be sponsored by an employer makes sense to me, although I can hardly see how I, as a resident with fifteen years career experience and ten years experience of international, national and local marketplaces, should be legally precluded by a national citizen with less ability to do the job.

The negative aspect of life here has been brought to mind though, thanks to the arrival of this flyer in my post box. The fact is that there are still many people who see foreigners as a threat and who tar us all with the same brush. I hadn’t had personal experience of this until moving here, and although it rarely raises its head in my daily life, I have heard the same old phrases on many occasions. “Dunno why these bloody tourists have to come here” and “bloody foreigners” are the two most common phrases, said in local dialect in a frustrated tone by those who don’t expect us bloody foreigners to have learned their language.

Having your hometown “invaded” by so many outsiders – foreign or not – and to have a non-Swiss language enforced upon you in many instances in bigger cities must lead to frustration. Not least, when much of the Swiss mentality (at least in those of my generation and older) is often that of seeing all outsiders as unwelcome to some degree; prevalently evident in the fact that so many Swiss can count the number of times they’ve visited other areas of the country on one hand.

What I fail to understand is the fear that Switzerland is somehow being ruined by foreigners. The foreigners are often the ones who come here to enjoy Switzerland just as it is and who are saddened when traditional places are modernized. The conscientious ones among those of us who are here for the long-term do our best to fit in and comply with the local rules and regulations, and contribute, directly or indirectly, to the welfare of our surrounding hosts.

Those who applaud the anti-foreigner stance seem to suffer from split personalities: on the one hand, wanting to modernize with their concrete, polished steel and glass houses and gain financial security and strength, whilst on the other hand, wanting to exclude the foreigners who form such a large part of the populace (between 20%-22%) and who contribute so much to the economy of the country. Take away the foreign businesses in Zurich and Basel, and close the tourist hotels in Lucerne, Interlaken and Bern, and what would remain? A more “pure” Swiss enviroment, for sure, but one which I expect wouldn’t even come close to matching the expectations, needs and wants of those who are striving to achieve such a federation.

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