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Courts keep sway over citizenship decisions

Citizenship procedures remain at the top of the Swiss political agenda

(Keystone Archive)

Parliament has turned down a rightwing People's Party proposal to give cantons and local authorities full autonomy in granting Swiss citizenship.

The House of Representatives voted against the idea on Monday, arguing that it went against anti-discrimination laws enshrined in the constitution.

The proposal challenged a 2003 Federal Court ruling on Switzerland's citizenship procedure, which effectively meant that citizenship requests could not be decided at the ballot box, by parliaments or other assemblies.

The judges said that failed candidates must be given a reason for their rejection, to avoid arbitrary decisions.

Voters in the town of Emmen near Lucerne had, for example, turned down applicants from the Balkans, apparently only on the basis of their origin. This pattern was repeated in other parts of central Switzerland.

The proposal from People's Party parliamentarian Rudolf Joder wanted the courts to be excluded from any part of the naturalisation process, and cantons and local authorities to be given the right to decide how citizenship was granted.

"We have to consider not only the rights of naturalisation candidates, but also those of Swiss voters," said Joder in parliament on Monday.

The rightwing parliamentarian added that he felt local autonomy was more important than anti-discrimination legislation.

Wide front

The proposal was fought from all sides of the House.

"For many voters, being faced with an applicant from the Balkans is reason enough to say 'no'," said centre-left Social Democrat Vreni Hubmann. "This would open the door to unfair and discriminatory decisions."

Green Party representative Josef Lang also pointed out that voters could not have the final word on everything in a liberal democracy.

The centre-right Radicals and Christian Democrats were tempted to consider more local autonomy for naturalisations, but turned down Joder's proposal because it ruled out appeals to the Federal Court.

"Giving the final choice to local authorities would go against legislation guaranteed by the constitution, such as our anti-discrimination laws," said Christian Democrat Felix Walker.

The Senate is currently considering another project which would allow cantons to decide whether voters, local authorities or assemblies should have the final word on naturalisation.

Under the terms of this proposal, the rejection of an application would have to be justified and a rejected candidate would be able to appeal to the courts.

Final say

Swiss citizens might have the last word on the issue at the ballot box. The People's Party is collecting signatures to force a nationwide vote on a proposal similar to Joder's.

Voters have generally been against easing citizenship rules in recent times, and could toe the People's Party line. Last year, they rejected a simplified naturalisation procedure for young foreigners for the second time in a decade.

Citizenship applicants must win approval from three different authorities, including their local council, with no guarantees that their applications will be successful.

Switzerland has one of the lowest levels of naturalisation in Europe.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

In 2003, the Federal Court ruled that a rejected application for citizenship must be justified.

This decision effectively banned local votes on naturalisation procedures.

In parliament, two proposals on giving local authorities more autonomy on this issue have been discussed.

The Swiss People's Party wants to force a nationwide ballot to grant voters more of a say on citizenship procedures.

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