There will be no moratorium on closing Swiss missions abroad after the Senate on Tuesday rejected a motion to freeze the reorganisation of the consular network.
The motion was sponsored by Roland Büchel, parliamentarian and leading member of the Swiss Abroad Council, and sought to suspend reorganisation of the consular network for two years.
Büchel said he was worried about the decline in benefits for the 700,000 Swiss living abroad. According to Büchel, the closure of consular representations in important cities like Hamburg and Chicago would bring only minimal savings.
Although the other parliamentary chamber, the House of Representatives, had supported the moratorium in June, the Senate threw it out unanimously, putting an end to the discussions for the time being.
Another leading representative of the Swiss expatriate community, Senator Filippo Lombardi, is putting pressure on the government through a legal amendment. He wants the cabinet to consult parliament’s two foreign affairs committees before decisions on Swiss abroad issues are taken.
He says a mandatory consultation would also raise parliament’s awareness of the concerns of the Swiss abroad community.
Lombardi says it reflects badly on the cabinet and Switzerland as a whole if the cabinet has to take back a decision to close a Swiss representation after parliament voted against it.
Parliament in June threw out plans by the foreign ministry to close down the Swiss embassy in Guatemala City.
However, Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter told the Senate that the government was free to decide on the closure and opening of embassies and consulates.
He added that following a decision by parliament to reduce spending, it would be inconsistent to thwart the foreign ministry’s efforts to make use of synergies and adapt to the changing needs of a consular network – notably in Asia and on the Arab peninsula.
“Overall services have not been cut,” he maintained during Tuesday’s debate.
Burkhalter said Switzerland was still well represented abroad with about 170 embassies – including about 120 consular units – and its services had not deteriorated because consular hubs, mobile consular services and a 24-hour helpline had been set up for expatriates.
He said that foreign ministry spending on diplomatic representations had been cut lightly over the past five years and that staff numbers had not been reduced for the past 12 years.
However, doubts among the Swiss abroad community remain.
Büchel wants the government to explain why nearly 800 jobs were created in the foreign ministry between 2007 and 2012, while the service at the Swiss representations abroad had been cut.
For his part, Rudolf Wyder, director of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), has expressed his disappointment at the parliamentary decision.
“We call on the government to provide detailed figures on how much money has been saved by the closures of consulates so far,” he says.
The OSA pressure group represents the more than 715,000 Swiss around the world. Most of them live in neighbouring European countries, but there is also a sizeable number of expats in North America.
More than 60 Swiss consulates, consulates general and consular units mainly in Europe as well as on other continents have been closed since 1990, according to the OSA.
Among them are 25 consular units in embassies that have been replaced by 13 regional hubs.
In June parliament refused to maintain the Swiss consulate to Chicago despite protests.
New diplomatic posts were opened in Nepal, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, as well as in Qatar.
An new embassy is also planned in Oman and a consulate general in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.