The Swiss expatriates are turning up the heat on Swiss institutions to grant discrimination-free access to financial services. The issue has plagued the community for nearly a decade.
“Enough is enough,” says Ariane Rustichelli, director of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroadexternal link (OSA).
Parliament in May threw out a call by a member of the House of Representatives urging the government to propose a legal amendment aimed at guaranteeing Swiss expats the right to open a bank account with a major Swiss bank.
The result was close in the House – with an unusually high number of parliamentarians abstaining from the vote. In the debate, Finance Minister Ueli Maurer argued banks had to be free to make their own risk assessment in a liberal system.
Parliament’s refusal infuriated the Swiss expat community which let their anger show in e-mails and letters to the OSA and to individual politicians, according to Rustichelli.
In response, two new motions were filed separately in parliament – by Senator Filippo Lombardi and the foreign affairs committee of the house – reiterating their demand on major Swiss banks and on the state-owned PostFinanceexternal link.
Although previous parliamentary interventions over the past five years came to nothing and moves by the OSA and its assembly, the Swiss Abroad Council, yielded limited results, Rustichelli is confident for the future.
“I think we stand a good chance of finding a satisfactory solution. There is an increasing public awareness of the problem and support in parliament is growing.”
Three pillar strategy
The OSA has launched a three-pillar strategy targeting the “too big to fail” banks who benefit from an implicit state guarantee, the cantonal banks and PostFinance, as well as private institutions.
It is crucial to remove any hurdles which could limit the mobility of the growing Swiss Abroad community, says Senator Lombardi in his motion.
“Swiss citizens living abroad need a bank account in Switzerland, notably to take out health insurance, to pay into the state old age pension scheme, cover expenses during their visits to Switzerland or to be able to manage property.”
Lombardi adds that it has become increasingly difficult since 2008 for Swiss expats to open or keep an account as banks often refuse to accept such clients, or only if they are willing to pay fees which are clearly above those for domestic customers.
For its part, the foreign affairs committee has agreed to table a motion in the House of Representatives, urging the government to ensure that PostFinance extend its universal financial services to Swiss citizens outside the country.
The committee speaker, Roland Rino Büchel, says there is overwhelming cross-party support. “It is a clear sign of the broad public awareness of the problem,” he is convinced. “It is important to keep up the political pressure.”
Büchel, the sponsor of at least three parliamentary moves on the issue over the past five years, strongly criticises previous attempts, notably one last May, by the Swiss Business Federation, Economiesuisse, to bring down his motion. He accuses lobbyists of using unfair means to block a solution.
Both Büchel and Lombardi are leading members of the Council of the Swiss Abroad and work in close cooperation with the OSA, which represents the about 775,000 registered expats.
Council and Congress
This year’s Congress of the Swiss Abroad takes place in Basel next weekend focusing on the common interest of expats and Swiss residents.
Among the prominent speakers are Interior Minister Alain Berset, the state secretary in the foreign ministry, Pascale Baeriswyl, author Irina Brežná, as well as experts on migration, culture and education.
Ahead of the annual congress, the 140-member Council of the Swiss Abroadexternal link meets on Friday for its first session of the new four-year term. Issues on agenda include the nationwide vote on a pension reform, the policy of the Swiss banks towards Swiss expats and e-voting.
About 775,000 Swiss citizens lived abroad at the end of last year – an increase of 2% on the previous year. Registered expats can take part in ballots in Switzerland and are eligible for a long-running with e-voting.
High fees vs costs
PostFinance, a unit of Swiss Post, is among the few retail banks willing to accept Swiss clients living abroad. It offers basic services which include the holding of a private account, e-banking, a debit card and financial transactions.
“We are happy to offer these services,” says company spokesman Johannes Möri, “but we do so on a voluntary basis and for conditions which cover our costs,” he continues.
“We understand that these fees are not very popular among our Swiss expat customers. However, the increasing regulatory demands in the cross-border business made price hikes unavoidable,” explains Möri, pointing out the administrative costs incurred to meet the conditions of tax data exchange as part of international agreements or a special accord with the United States.
PostFinance, which is among the top five financial institutions in the country, raised the monthly fees to CHF25 ($26.1) per client and account at the beginning of 2017.
Möri said these regulatory expenses meant it would be very difficult to extend the range of services as has been called for, such as offering credit cards and mortgages.
“We don’t distribute costs resulting from international business at a flat rate to all of our customers. We charge customers domiciled abroad according to a user-based system instead. Any other approach would be unfair to our other customers.”
Parliamentarian Maximilian Reimann, a member of the conservative right Swiss People’s Party, like Büchel, agrees in principle that Swiss expats must be offered access to banking services in Switzerland. But he cautions that it is not possible to put clients outside the country on the same footing as domestic customers.
Three out of four Swiss expats have dual nationality, which means they are also subject to the laws of another country. “Therefore, Swiss banks and PostFinance must not be forced to face extraordinary problems.”
Like Möri, he rules out cross-financing as a means to avoid extra costs for Swiss Abroad customers.
In a more categorical tone, Reimann says people who decide to go and live abroad have to be prepared to accept certain disadvantages.
At the OSA headquarters in Bern, the mood is decidedly more combative. Director Rustichelli insists that the Swiss expat community is an attractive clientele for banks and that it is time for politicians to step down from the political soapbox.
She says the Swiss expatriate community is fed up with some politicians pointing the finger at them as profiteers siphoning off old age pension benefits, a government unwilling to take action and banks using the opportunity to shed less wealthy customers to court more affluent clientele.