Court backs citizenship ban on language grounds

Many hurdles stand in the way of a Swiss passport

The Federal Court has ruled in favour of a commune which denied a foreigner citizenship on the grounds that she did not speak enough German.

This content was published on February 4, 2004 minutes

Switzerland’s highest court said that insufficient knowledge of a national language was reason enough to reject of an application for Swiss citizenship.

The local authorities in Balsthal, canton Solothurn, had been at loggerheads with their cantonal parliament ever since they turned down a Turkish woman’s application for citizenship in 2001.

The 56-year old, who has lived in Switzerland for over a quarter of a century, was deemed to have insufficient knowledge of German.

The cantonal parliament overturned the decision, whereupon the dispute was referred to the Federal Court. The judges backed Balsthal, saying the regional ruling went against the sovereignty of the local council.

The move comes just weeks after the commune of Ostermundigen near the capital, Bern, became the first in Switzerland to set language tests as part of foreigners’ citizenship applications.

Roughly 1.5 million people in Switzerland – one-fifth of the population – are foreigners.

Long road to citizenship

Citizenship criteria vary widely in Switzerland.

Immigrants wishing to become Swiss must apply through their local communities, which decide on the application. Every commune is free to impose its own conditions for citizenship, over and above basic requirements set out by each canton.

Only people who have lived in Switzerland for at least 12 years are eligible to apply for Swiss nationality.

In July last year the country’s highest court banned secret ballots on citizenship - held in several Swiss communes - on the grounds that they could violate anti-discrimination laws.

The ruling came after voters in Emmen near Lucerne rejected citizenship applications from 97 people, most of them from the former Yugoslavia, in secret ballots over the past three years.

A number of Swiss cantons were expected to amend their cantonal laws following July’s ruling.


In brief

Criteria for citizenship vary widely in Switzerland.

In some towns, candidates are accepted almost automatically, provided they have lived in the country for at least 12 years.

But others have to undergo extensive interviews about their lives, their work, their financial situation and their knowledge of Switzerland.

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