Naturalisation is a Swiss political hot potato, with moves afoot to make the process harder in the face of rising immigration. But not every foreign resident who is eligible feels the need to embark on the long road to Swiss citizenship.
A 2012 study commissioned by the Federal Commission on Migration found that in 2010 around 900,000 people in Switzerland were eligible for citizenship. In contrast, 36,000 people, or around two per cent of foreigners in Switzerland in 2011, were granted Swiss citizenship.
“In comparison to other countries, Switzerland has very strict criteria for citizenship, which could be a reason for the relatively high number of people with foreigner status,” Halua Pinto de Magalhães, co-president of the immigrant organisation Second@s Plus, told swissinfo.ch.
But there are other reasons as well. Mary Ann Reynolds, who is British, lives in Appenzell with her Canadian husband. “I’ve lived here 12 years and my husband nearly 20,” Reynolds says. “Neither of us are interested in becoming Swiss. We don’t understand anyone’s motivation if their current citizenship is of a well-recognised and respected country.”
Bibiana* [name withheld], from Slovakia, a member of the European Union, “never thought about being Swiss. I never needed it.” She has lived in Bern for 14 years. Her partner, from South America, has a diplomatic passport. The couple plan to return to South America before their oldest child starts school.
And Per Jessen, a Dane who lives in canton Zurich, is torn. He would like to become Swiss, but would have to give up his Danish citizenship. “It’s sentimental attachment,” he says, and not the belief that an EU passport is more valuable.
So, has a Swiss passport become less valuable in the past 50 years? Probably, according to Walter Leimgruber, head of the Institute for Cultural Studies and European Ethnology at the University of Basel.
“A passport for a neutral Switzerland was quite a good travel document in the post-second World War era and in the era of the Cold War,” he told swissinfo.ch. “It opened doors that were closed – for example, for citizens of the member states of the NATO or the Warsaw Pact.”
“I think these advantages are non-existent or are not that big these days,” Leimgruber says.
Who is currently eligible?
Applying for Swiss citizenship is a complicated process, all the more so because all applications are considered at the national, cantonal, and communal levels. Immigrants who have lived in Switzerland for 12 years are eligible at a national level to apply for citizenship, but requirements for how long a person has to have lived in a commune before applying vary.
There are other special conditions as well. The spouses of Swiss citizens can apply once they have lived in the country for five years, but the couple has to have cohabited for the past three years. Similarly, if a foreign couple apply together for citizenship, only one has to meet the 12-year requirement; the other must have lived in Switzerland for five years. And for young foreigners who were born in Switzerland to immigrant parents - often referred to as ‘secondos’ - the years between the ages of 10 and 20 are currently counted double.
Applicants are required to be integrated in the Swiss way of life, familiar with Swiss customs and traditions, in compliance with the Swiss rule of law, and to represent no danger to Switzerland's internal or external security.
Tightening the law
Changes are planned to Swiss naturalisation law. In March, the House of Representatives discussed proposed reforms to the law, which took effect in 1952 and has already undergone revision several times. If the changes they approved (see infobox) are accepted by the Senate, in many ways it will become even more difficult to be naturalised.
Opinions about what should be contained in the law vary widely between the political parties, particularly the rightwing Swiss People’s Party and the centre-left Social Democrats.
The People’s Party, on the one hand, states that “Switzerland has serious problems with immigration… Almost half of the crimes committed in Switzerland are carried out by foreigners.”
During the parliamentary hearings, however, the Social Democrats’ Silvia Schenker stressed that there are also foreigners who deserve to become citizens. “We’re not talking about criminal foreigners, asylum seekers, or migrants. We’re talking about people who have lived here for years, who work and pay taxes here.”
Also in March, Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga presented a set of proposals to improve integration.
Necessary criteria for full residency or for the extension of temporary licences included language skills to master everyday situations. In addition, immigrants, including their family members, have to respect the values laid down in the Swiss constitution, including equal rights for men and women. They also have to be willing to work or get some form of education and they must not have a criminal record.
Time and effort is needed to become Swiss. On top of the 12-year residency requirement, the application process can take up to three years, and during this time the applicant cannot move to another community.
Some foreigners are satisfied with the advantages conferred by a permanent residence permit. The Reynolds in Appenzell, who own two companies, “employ people and pay our way,” says Mary Ann. “We feel respected and welcome as a result, and a Swiss passport wouldn’t make much difference,” other than conferring the right to vote.
EU citizens, like Per Jessen, often think twice about exchanging their passports for a Swiss one, says the University of Basel’s Leimgruber.
“For the moment it’s not very important whether you have a Swiss passport or an EU passport, because you can travel in all these countries without any problems and without any difference. But you don’t know whether these bilateral agreements will exist forever,” Leimgruber says.
For young men, having to perform military service is also an issue. swissinfo.ch talked to several parents of underage boys who felt their sons should be able to decide for themselves whether they want citizenship that would require them to serve in the army.
And for foreigners who live in communes where voters have a say in who is naturalised, the fear of rejection is an issue.
“If you live in a city it’s no problem - it’s an administrative process,” says de Magalhães of Second@s Plus. “But when you live in a small village it can be uncomfortable when you know everyone and they’re supposed to vote on whether to give you citizenship.”
Combatting increasing immigration
With the introduction in 2002 of the bilateral accord with the EU on the free movement of people, the number of immigrants has been rising steadily.
Almost 125,000 foreigners immigrated to Switzerland in 2011, and people with an immigration background accounted for almost 35 per cent of the total permanent resident population aged 15 or over in 2012. The Swiss People’s Party has been battling to slow immigration.
“Sound the alarm and set the emergency brake,” said Luzi Stamm, the party's vice president, during a television roundtable discussion. Lorenz Hess, vice president of the Conservative Democratic Party, also stated that limits were needed. “The pressure from the people is there.”
Fitting in is often not a problem for ‘secondos’ – second-generation foreigners who grow up in Switzerland. But even some of them don’t want citizenship.
“These are people who don’t want to buy their way in,” says de Magalhães. “They believe that having a voice should be a part of living in a country. And therefore they don’t apply for citizenship on principle.”
Leimgruber believes naturalisation law “should be an encouragement, especially for young people living here, to become Swiss citizens and to participate. It doesn’t make sense to have a lot of young people having the impression, ‘Well, we live here, but nobody’s interested in what we’re doing on the level of society or politics’.”
The Reynolds’ eight-year-old son was born in Switzerland. He is “indistinguishable from his friends, with perfect Swiss German,” Mary Ann says.
Yet she believes that “with joint British and Canadian citizenship he has the opportunity to travel the world, and I doubt he will see Switzerland as the centre of his universe.”
Proposed changes to the naturalisation law
Changes agreed by the House of Representatives in March include:
Only foreigners who already possess a permanent (C) residence permit can apply.
Applications can be submitted after living in Switzerland for ten (down from 12) years.
Residence between the ages of ten and 20 would no longer count double.
If foreign couples apply jointly, both must fulfil the 12-year residence requirement.