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Swiss Abroad Congress Expats praised as driving force of innovation

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One of Switzerland's biggest assets is its capacity to innovate which goes hand in hand with increasing international mobility according to Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter.

In his speech to the annual Congress of the Swiss Abroad on Saturday Burkhalter stressed the importance for Switzerland to seek an exchange with the world while standing by its solid values.

“Switzerland will remain strong if it retains its pioneering role in science and research. It will continue to be strong if it is wise enough to remain open,” he told the delegates of the Swiss diaspora meeting in Lausanne.

Burkhalter is convinced that Switzerland’s traditional values are a trump card in a world which appears to change at an ever faster pace.

“The capacity of innovation, its open mindedness, its freedom and its sense of responsibility are key and which we have to keep and to foster,” he said.

He regretted that all too often, Switzerland’s top position and achievements in the world of science and research over the past five centuries have not been properly appreciated outside the country.

Burkhalter also stressed the excellent standards at Switzerland’s Technical Institutes of Technology - based in Zurich and Lausanne - which are not only the result of hard work but also of the cooperation and exchange with other institutes in Europe and the world.

One in three professors in Switzerland come from abroad, one in two post graduate researchers and more than 20 per cent of the students are foreigners.

In return one in five Swiss with a university degree have spent time abroad for their academic studies, he said.

Burkhalter, who took over the foreign ministry last December, was one of the key-note speakers at the two-day congress which focused on the theme of Innovation and Mobility and heard round-table discussions as well as presentations by Kurt Wüthrich, 2002 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry and Elmar Mock, inventor of the famous plastic watch 30 years ago.

Academic freedom

Wüthrich, one of five Swiss Nobel Prize winners, warned that scientists at universities are being lumbered with an increasing amount of tasks and face pressure both from the European Union administration as well as streamlined scientific magazines.

“Our universities risk losing their academic sovereignty,” he cautioned.

Looking back over his career in Switzerland and abroad, Wüthrich stressed the need for scientific and cultural exchange, the competitive challenge but also hailed the solid education values in Switzerland.

For his part, Swatch inventor Mock recalled the story one of the most successful innovations in 20th century Switzerland.

He urged people to “dare the unthinkable”, set “impossible targets”, and question fundamental principles.

Mock believes that the acceptance of different cultures and mentalities in Switzerland will only boost the country's chances of remaining innovative.


During the two-day congress, Jacques-Simon Eggly, president of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), handed over a petition to Foreign Minister Burkhalter, calling on the authorities to introduce electronic voting for the entire expatriate community by 2015.

The OSA has collected some 15,000 signatures over the past seven months.

“Swiss citizens are becoming increasingly mobile. The instruments of direct democracy have to be adapted to grant expatriates their political rights,” the petition said.

The authorities have launched trials with e-voting in 2004, which has gradually allowed about 50 per cent of the Swiss diaspora to cast their ballots online.

However, critics say the introduction has been slowed down by Switzerland’s federalist system, which gives cantons a large autonomy, and over data security concerns.

Swiss diaspora

Nearly 704,000 Swiss citizens live abroad according to official data from December 2011.

Most of them are registered in neighbouring countries France, Germany and Italy.

There is also large Swiss community in North America.

Some 143,000 Swiss expats have registered to take part in nationwide votes and in elections in Switzerland.

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