Interest in the voting might of Swiss living abroad has increased hugely in recent years. As a consequence, leading the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) has become increasingly political, according to director Rudolf Wyder.
Wyder spoke to swissinfo.ch as he prepared to step down at the age of 65, after 25 years in his dream job.
“Just as I was when I began, I am still leading a small NGO that represents the interests of Swiss outside of the country. The diversity of our activities is enormous - you do a thousand different things, like in a general store.”
But in the course of time something fundamental changed: since 1992, when Swiss living abroad were given the right to vote by post, they have been eyed by political parties. These parties are not only interested in the expectations and needs of their countrymen abroad – they want their votes.
“Lobbying became my main job, because you need a very broadly based network of political relationships. Otherwise, you run aground very fast,” he said.
He pointed out that the size of the 112-member parliamentary group “Swiss Abroad”, one of the largest in parliament, is confirmation of the political importance of citizens outside the country. Nowadays every parliamentary session considers proposals or questions about what is commonly referred to as the “Fifth Switzerland.” “Twenty-five years ago,” said Wyder,”something about the OSA came up maybe once a year.”
The four “Switzerlands” refer to the Swiss language regions of German, French, Italian and Romansh.
The “Parliament of the Fifth Switzerland,” which is made up of 120 delegates from Swiss institutions abroad and 20 Swiss living inside the country, has a key role in national politics. “Even though we continually ask ourselves on whose behalf we are speaking, the parliament indubitably has a high moral authority. It is true that the assembly does not have any legislative powers but it does reflect the most important concerns of Swiss living abroad,” he explained.
He also noted that communication between Switzerland and its diaspora has changed drastically over the years. Thanks above all to the internet and the Swiss Community platform, citizens living outside the country are far closer to their homeland than was the case 25 years ago.
A quiz for Rudolf Wyder
Why is the Swiss abroad community known as the “Fifth Switzerland”?
This stems from the time when Romansh was recognised as the fourth national language of Switzerland. In other words: Wait, there’s another group that also is part of Switzerland, even if they are based outside the country – namely, the “Fifth Switzerland”.
How many Swiss are living abroad?
How many of these are dual citizens?
The figure is 69% (72.5% is correct)
Where do most of the Swiss abroad live?
That’s clear, in France.
In which country or countries are there no Swiss abroad?
I believe on Nevis, an island in the Lesser Antilles, as well as on Nauru and Tuvalu in the Pacific. At present probably in Iraq. And in Afghanistan at times there were also none.
How many of the Swiss abroad are registered to vote?
A good 149,000
How many Swiss abroad clubs are there?
We’re in contact with about 700.
Which is the smallest club?
I don’t know. (swissinfo also doesn’t know)
How many Swiss living abroad do you know?
Over the years I’ve probably met about 1000 personally.
How many of the countries in which Swiss abroad live have you visited?
I’d say about 30.
How would you describe the typical Swiss abroad?
Patriotic and cosmopolitan.
Impact of globalisation
Mobility has increased markedly in recent years and it has become commonplace for people to spend a number of short stints abroad, one after the other, often in different countries. Erasmus, an enormous Europe-wide university student exchange programme, and temporary work-related stints in other countries, are obvious examples.
Wyder believes that the Swiss are less aware than they should be that being able travel wherever they want is not a matter of course. Thanks to the agreement on the free movement of people with the European Union (EU), Swiss have almost the same status as other Europeans, despite the fact that
Switzerland is not an EU member.
“We need to be careful not to forget reciprocity. Otherwise, others could refuse us what we now happily take for granted.”
Yet another change observed by Wyder is how many people now move around for personal reasons without thinking twice about it.
“It’s interesting that 57% of Swiss living abroad are female. One reason for that might be that women are following their foreign partners. That’s something Swiss men should think about!” he joked.
There was a time when Switzerland was in many respects seen as something of a model. Today it still likes to see itself in that role, although its image has been bruised in the past years, over such things as the Holocaust gold affair in the 1990s, banking secrecy, and activities of the commodity dealers based in the country.
How do these controversies affect the lives of Swiss citizens abroad? There are two sides to the response from other countries, Wyder says.
“For some the image of Switzerland has been badly damaged: you’re slowly given the once over when you show your Swiss passport, it’s not as friendly anymore. Others say it’s still an advantage to be Swiss, and that the claim that Switzerland is in the dock is media hype, political drama. But what’s for sure is that the old idyllic image of Switzerland is no longer so simple.”
One current problem is that, because of problems with banking secrecy and tax disputes, banks are refusing to deal with Swiss living outside the country.
“It started in the US but in the meantime we’re getting reports from all over the world of Swiss abroad having to close their bank accounts and finding it difficult to get a new bank. I hope that the Swiss banking industry will start operating in accordance with international standards as soon as possible. It’s an unbelievable step backwards that people should be punished merely for living in another country and it goes against globalisation and mobility.”
In the last 30 years the number of Swiss abroad has doubled to over 715,000. During that same period the number of consulates has been halved. While many services are now available on the internet, to obtain or renew a passport people must travel longer distances.
“That’s one of the biggest irritations today. In this case, they overshot the mark, because now consular representative must also travel further, for example to visit a Swiss citizen in hospital or prison. I’m not sure that the foreign ministry got its sums right. The move to put more emphasis on the work of diplomats at the expense of consular workers is problematic. The net has been spread too thin. There’ll have to be some back-pedalling.”
As of January 1, 2014 Ariane Rustichelli and Sarah Mastantuoni will become co-directors of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA)
The current director, Rudolf Wyder, will retire on December 31, 2013. He has headed the organisation since 1987.
Rustichelli is currently director of communication and marketing and Mastantuoni is head of the legal department.
Wyder will organize the 100 year anniversary of the OSA in 2016 as a freelancer.
Another perennial issue is e-voting, which has once more been called into question in light of the NSA spy affair. Notwithstanding, the federal chancellery considers voting by internet safe, a view that Wyder shares. “I see it as vital that we adapt our means of communication to the times. The NSA affair indeed underscored that communications systems are favoured targets. However, hacking and espionage are two different animals. This is nonetheless a gift for those who have always been against e-voting.”
Unlike e-voting, a wide consensus prevails across party lines in parliament on Swiss schools abroad, which time and again struggle with financial problems.
“They’re an instrument of Swiss foreign policy,” says Wyder. On December 12 the Senate passed the education law for the Swiss abroad, which now has to go to the House of Representatives.
It will give the 17 Swiss schools outside Switzerland more economic freedom and more security when it comes to planning. In addition, the requirement for a minimum number of Swiss students – currently set at 20-30% – will be removed.
“In parliament it is widely accepted that these schools are very beneficial for Switzerland: young people get to know Switzerland, they’re a plus for promoting tourism and for recruiting future executives,” he explained.
Wyder will step down at the end of 2013. The decision was not a particularly difficult one, even though he has been “married” to the OSA for over 26 years. The coming generational change is a good thing, he believes.
“I have to clear out the office and it has to be re-painted: when I first started, I still smoked pipes and cigarettes.
(translated from German by Kathleen Peters), swissinfo.ch