The executive council representing Swiss expatriates has approved a detailed set of proposals aimed at promoting and defending the interests of the community.
It wants the government to present a blueprint for a special law on the Swiss abroad within the next 12 months – almost 50 years after the community’s status was enshrined in the constitution.
At its session in the eastern city of St Gallen on Friday, the council discussed proposals for 16 articles of a draft law to be submitted to the federal authorities.
It specifies the approach the government should take towards the community of nearly 700,000 Swiss citizens living outside the country.
It also defines the organisations representing the interests of the expatriate community and its information sources, including the Swiss Review magazine as well as the multimedia online platform, swissinfo.ch.
The discussions come only ten days after a cabinet report officially recognised the importance of the Swiss abroad and admitted a series of shortcomings. However the government refused to consider increasing funding for institutions and services for expats.
Long in coming
The government also recommended drafting a bill, in response to a formal request by Senator Filippo Lombardi six years ago.
Lombardi acknowledges that it has taken the federal authorities a long time to publish its findings and believes other interest groups have been more successful up until now to win the attention of the politicians.
However, he says there is a window of opportunity to boost the position of the Swiss abroad and win greater rights.
“We have to strike the iron while it’s hot,” Lombardi told swissinfo.ch.
He added that preparations are underway to keep up pressure on the government to present a bill before the end of the parliamentary term in October 2011.
Lombardi, a member of the centre-right Christian Democratic Party from canton Ticino, said politicians had only begun to realise the importance of the Swiss abroad.
For a long time the expatriate community too, failed to show a real interest in Swiss politics, according to Lombardi.
They only won the right to take part in votes in 1992. In a bid to facilitate the participation of the Swiss abroad in ballots, the authorities have begun to introduce electronic voting.
So far, seven out of 26 cantons offer their citizens abroad the option of e-voting.
A total of about 130,000 of them have registered to take part in ballots, according to the foreign ministry.
Friday’s session of the 130-member council in St Gallen also heard a number of complaints about the introduction of biometric passports in 2009.
Several speakers pointed out the serious difficulties for expatriates living in remote regions of a foreign country to obtain passports or identification papers as the offices issuing such documents were centralised.
The council meeting came ahead of the annual Congress of the Swiss Abroad at the weekend.
It will focus on the role of the expatriate community in Swiss politics, including a representation in parliament.
Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey is due to give a keynote speech to the 500 delegates expected at the meeting.
Council of the Swiss Abroad
The Council of the Swiss Abroad, which has about 140 seats, represents the interests of the community with the federal authorities.
The assembly meets twice a year in Switzerland for day-long sessions.
The autumn session takes place ahead of the annual Congress of the Swiss Abroad.
This year’s congress, to be attended by about 500 delegates, takes place in the eastern city of St Gallen.
The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) was founded in 1916 to defend the interests of the expatriate community and provide advice.
Swiss expat community
According to the foreign ministry, 684,974 Swiss lived abroad in 2009 (+1.3% on 2008), compared with 7.8 million residents in Switzerland.
130,017 expatriates aged over 18 have registered to vote, an increase of 4.5%.
Most expatriates live in France, Germany and the US.
Since 1992 Swiss abroad have had the right to take part in federal votes/elections via mail from abroad.
The request from senator Filippo Lombardi, signed by 26 parliamentarians, was submitted to the cabinet on October 7, 2004. Its list of demands included the following:
* to make a comprehensive report on the importance of the Swiss abroad and their role in Switzerland’s foreign affairs.
* to investigate the economic benefits Switzerland derives from the activities of Swiss expats.
* based on these findings, propose how funding for the Swiss abroad can be improved.
* promote greater involvement of expats in the Swiss political process by guaranteeing adequate information services and through the introduction of e-voting.
* to look into the possibility of inviting politicians from around the world with Swiss roots to conferences in Switzerland to strengthen relations with institutions in other countries.