The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) has suffered a setback in its efforts to ensure that the registration of the 730,000 Swiss citizens living abroad remains compulsory, following disagreement in parliament over the content of a new expat law.
The proposed legislation is aiming for a more coherent policy on the Swiss Abroad community and, apart from the registration issue, includes the introduction of electronic voting for Swiss expats and a confirmation of the OSA as official body representing expat interests.
Striking off mandatory reporting would make much more difficult for embassies and consulates to keep in contact with Swiss citizens living abroad, the OSA said in a statement, following a decision by the House of Representatives against registration on Thursday.
“In cases of crises, conflicts and disasters, a great number of expatriates risk becoming unreachable,” it continued.
The OSA believes that the decision by the House goes against the intention of the law, sponsored by Senator Filippo Lombardi.
Nevertheless, the pressure group welcomed parliament’s approval in principle of the new legislation.
During a two-hour debate in the House most members of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party slammed the draft law as bureaucratic and unnecessary.
The other major political parties were divided over the mandatory registration of expatriates. Opponents said such a clause was outdated and the authorities would not be able to punish anyone for refusing to register with an official Swiss representation abroad.
Centre-left Social Democrat Andy Tschümperlin said that an estimated 20% of all Swiss expats already ignored the current duty.
Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter added that three out of four expatriates had dual nationality without close links with Switzerland. An obligation to sign in was going too far, he said. “It makes more sense to encourage them to register.”
However, Gerhard Pfister, a member of the centre-right Christian Democrats, argued that introducing a voluntary system would create additional difficulties for the government as the experience of other countries had shown.
An overwhelming majority voted for the abolition of the current mandatory system, but they wanted to allow those who had registered voluntarily to have the automatic right to take part in elections and votes in Switzerland.
In vain Burkhalter had warned that such a move would cause extra bureaucracy and additional costs as citizens abroad would have to be sent information material to allow them to participate in Switzerland’s direct democratic process.
Currently any Swiss abroad wishing to take part in votes has to register separately – a system used by about 130,000 citizens.
Search for compromise
The Senate came out in favour of a mandatory registration of Swiss citizens abroad during a debate in March.
As part of the parliamentary procedure, both chambers will have to find common ground in the next few months, ironing out their differences.
The House and the Senate also disagree on a clause in the planned law which calls for a more democratic election procedure for choosing the representatives of the Swiss Abroad Council – an assembly of more than 140 delegates from all over the world and from Swiss institutions.
The council, the OSA executive arm, meets twice a year to discuss issues relevant for the more than 730,000 registered Swiss expatriates.
By Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch