This weekend the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad is celebrating its centenary, but never before in its history has the OSA faced such a huge challenge to attract young members. OSA President Remo Gysin tells swissinfo.ch how he hopes to make the Swiss Abroad assembly more democratic.
The 140-strong Council of the Swiss Abroad represents the interest of the expatriate community, and its electoral base is made up mainly of Swiss clubs and associations around the world.
However, only about 4% of the Swiss expatriates have joined such Swiss clubs. The younger and increasingly mobile generation is showing little interest in engaging in such traditional environments.
swissinfo.ch: There are more than 760,000 Swiss nationals who live abroad, some left for good, others only for a limited period of time. What demands do they have?
Remo Gysin: The expat community is diverse. Some have a close relationship with Switzerland, others have a more distant attitude, albeit temporarily perhaps. Most Swiss who live abroad want to remain part of their home country, and to be informed about what’s happening in Switzerland. Many of them participate in votes and elections and they are grateful that the can do so online with e-voting.
The Swiss expatriates need social security: What happens if they fall ill, when they reach the retirement age or if they consider returning to Switzerland? These are all cases when they need expert advice and support.
Gysin was elected president of the OSA in 2015 to succeed Jacques-Simon Eggly.
Gysin served as a member of the Basel City cantonal government from 1984 to 1992.
A member of the Swiss parliament from 1995 to 2007, he sat in the House of Representatives for the Social Democratic Party. Gysin is one of the leading promoters of Swiss membership in the United Nations.
He has been a member of the OSA executive board since 2001.
He worked as a management consultant and member of the Swiss Disaster Relief Unit.
Many Swiss, particularly those who live in the United States, face problems when trying to open a bank account in Switzerland. For others the consular service is very important.
swissinfo.ch: Are there specific differences between the older and younger expat generation?
R.G.: Definitely. The biggest differences are between those who were born in Switzerland and emigrated as adults, those who left Switzerland at an early age together with their parents and those expats who were born and raised in a foreign country.
The OSA has three platforms for the young generation of expats.
Educationsuisse represents the 17 Swiss schools abroad with more than 7,500 pupils. The Swiss expats youth services can provide need-based financial support for holidays in Switzerland through a special foundation. Another OSA service organises holiday camps, language exchanges and courses for young expats on Switzerland’s political system.
The differences between the old and the young are also noticeable in Swiss clubs and associations as well as in the Council of the Swiss Abroad. There is often a lack young members, as they are looking for different forms of organising themselves.
Last year, for instance, the Youth Parliament of the Swiss Abroad was set up. And in Italy more than 60 different youth groups were founded in just a few years. This pioneering effort is very encouraging.
swissinfo.ch: The OSA celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. What specific challenges does the organisation face in an age of increased mobility?
R.G.: We hope to bring the Swiss Abroad and those citizens living in Switzerland closer together with our jubilee event. We also want to make the OSA better known among the general public.
It is a fact that mobility has increased a great deal, distances shrink and the pace is fast. More and people seem to be on the move. Poverty used to be the primary reason for emigration, but today it is likely to be the professional career that makes Swiss citizens go and live in nearly 200 different countries across the globe.
Swiss citizens want to be able to rely on services 24 hours a day by consulates, an international helpline, advisory offices and mobile units which go to remote regions too.
The role of the OSA is to inform, advise, and link Swiss citizens and to represent their interests, notably for elections and votes. It is therefore crucial that e-voting options are extended so that Swiss citizens abroad can exercise their political rights.
Then there are problems of everyday life such as in banking. It is important for a Swiss expatriate to have an account with a Swiss bank, but it is not always easy to open such an account. The OSA is trying hard to provide assistance.
swissinfo.ch: The OSA represents the interests of the Swiss expat community and acts as its mouthpiece. Yet only about 3% of the expats are members of the OSA. How can it really speak on behalf of the Swiss Abroad community?
R.G.: Every Swiss expatriate can count on the OSA according to the aims of our foundation and its charter. We have various information tools. The Swiss Revue magazine has a print-run of 400,000 copies and up to 800,000 potential readers.
The 600 or so Swiss clubs and associations form the basis and the statutory trustees of the OSA. We can rely on them but they represent only 2-4% of the Swiss expatriate community. This indeed begs the question what the Swiss clubs and their umbrella organisations can do to increase their membership numbers.
swissinfo.ch: It is a small percentage of the Swiss expats that elects the Swiss Abroad Council, an assembly which represents the entire community. What about the council’s legitimacy? Why is it such a vital issue?
R.G.: It is a fundamental issue for both the clubs and the council. New associations are founded, others cease to exist because of a lack of members. However, they have one thing in common: a disproportionate number of representatives of the older generation and hardly any young members. This is a key issue that determines our future and this needs to be addressed.
The Swiss Abroad Council is made up of 120 members from outside Switzerland and 20 from domestic organisations and institutions. The representatives from abroad are delegated by the Swiss clubs. Therefore, the council’s legitimacy and efficiency increases with a high participation of Swiss Abroad citizens and of members of Swiss clubs.
swissinfo.ch: Is it possible to broaden the electoral basis of the Council of the Swiss Abroad by allowing all Swiss expats to take part in the election?
R.G.: This has been a topic of discussion for decades. To achieve the goal, we need both e-voting and the willingness of the Swiss clubs and the Council of the Swiss Abroad. It is possible to open the electoral procedure also to non-members of Swiss clubs, as the example of the Swiss communities in Britain and Belgium shows.
The case of Britain could serve as an interim model. Of the four seats attributed to the Swiss expats in Britain, two are chosen by members of Swiss clubs. The other two are seats are elected by the local expat community at large.
Our aim is to improve the democratic legitimacy of the Swiss Abroad Council in next year’s elections. A working group is currently examining the issue.
swissinfo.ch: But the young generation and those living abroad on a temporary basis seem to show little interest in joining Swiss clubs. How can you get more young people on board?
R.G.: We are working hard to try to attract the younger generation as the creation of the Youth Parliament of the Swiss Abroad shows. It has a lot of potential. The success of youth promotion among the Swiss community in Italy is encouraging communities in other countries to follow their example.
It is important to let the young generation define its visions and express its demands. If needed, the Swiss clubs may help them to realise their goals.
And not least of all: Our online platform, Swisscommunity, is also attractive for the young generation.
Adapted from German by Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch