Cuts in Switzerland’s diplomatic network and a reform of regulations for Swiss schools abroad have marked discussions at a meeting of the governing body of the expatriate organisation.
The assembly in the city of Lausanne on Friday heard some details about the latest round of changes at embassies and consulates general, notably in the United States and Canada.
As part of a cost-cutting programme launched by parliament, the consulates general in Chicago and Toronto will be closed, while the office in Los Angeles is set to be downgraded, while two separate consular units in New York are to be merged by the end of 2014.
“The good news is that this is the final round of planned consolidations. We hope to have fulfilled the cost-cutting demands,” Gerhard Brügger, senior official in the foreign ministry, told the Council of the Swiss Abroad.
Embassies and consulates in Latin America, notably in Guatemala, Havana, La Paz, as well as in eastern Europe, the Gulf region and Africa are also affected.
Brügger said the authorities were trying to “optimise the Swiss network”, creating a number of regional hubs, offering mobile consular services, a round-the-clock telephone helpline or even opening new embassies in Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan instead.
He added that other European countries were also reducing their diplomatic representations.
His explanations prompted a number of questions from members of the council who expressed their concern and dismay about the dwindling official government presence for the Swiss diaspora and about the image of Switzerland in general.
Jacques-Simon Eggly, president of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) and chairman of the council meeting, said the new offers could not replace the physical presence of consular staff.
“It is very problematic to weaken an increasing number of our embassies by amputating their consular sections not only from the point of view of the expatriate community but also for foreign policy reasons.
“It undermines our international presence and the reputation of our country which has decided to go it alone and therefore has to make an extra effort to be visible,” Eggly said.
Development aid organisations last month also wrote a letter to the foreign ministry calling on the authorities to reconsider the closure of the embassy in Guatemala City.
Over the past two years the foreign ministry set up 12 consular hubs, but closed at least 19 consulates in return - not including the latest additions – according to the OSA.
The meeting unanimously agreed proposals to boost the status of Swiss schools abroad as part of the country’s foreign policy.
The interior ministry is currently drafting a revised bill on Swiss schools abroad to be discussed in parliament at a later stage.
OSA director Rudolf Wyder said it was crucial to grant Swiss schools more flexibility to adapt to their specific local needs, including the reduction of quotas for Swiss pupils, increased coordination with other schools and promoting vocational training programmes.
But the schools have to promote Swiss values and guarantee quality standards, according to Wyder.
“An investment in the export of education know-how is a contribution to the growing global mobility and to economic prosperity,” he said.
Wyder said more schools could be added to the list of 18 Swiss institutions mainly in Italy, Spain and Latin America, but he stressed the importance of government subsidies to the tune of SFr20 million ($20.5 million) annually.
During its one-day meeting ahead of the annual Congress of the Swiss Abroad at the weekend, the council also called on the government to consider the interests of the Swiss expats in negotiations with France on a revised accord on inheritance tax.
A resolution, unanimously passed by about 90 council members, warns the planned agreement could have a negative impact on Swiss expatriates living in and even outside France despite international standards by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
However, council member and parliamentarian Carlo Sommaruga explained the Swiss government was very limited in its options for reacting to French pressure.
He pointed out similarities to an on-going dispute with the US on income tax dodgers. Sommaruga said it was preferable to agree a deal than to have legal uncertainty.
Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf recently revealed that France had suspended a long-standing agreement on inheritance tax in an effort to clamp down on suspected wealthy citizens with property in neighbouring Switzerland.
The largest Swiss expat community lives in France, many of whom have dual citizenship.