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How Maria got her Swiss passport in Meggen

A Swiss passport means a lot to Maria because she has been living in the country for more than 20 years Keystone Archive

Meggen, an affluent suburb of Lucerne, is one of many local authorities where a town hall assembly decides on citizenship applications.

This content was published on May 30, 2008 - 07:52

Ahead of a nationwide vote on naturalisation methods on Sunday, swissinfo travelled to Meggen to witness the procedure.

Five years ago, the Federal Court outlawed ballot box decisions on citizenship requests, prompting a challenge from the rightwing People's Party.

The People's Party argues it is up to communes to decide on the procedure – by a public assembly, a special panel – or by secret vote.

The town hall of Meggen is not exactly packed for the regular public meeting. The first few rows of chairs remain empty.

Representatives of the Meggen local council have taken their seats on the podium, which also serves as a stage for the local theatre group.

The five council members face an assembly of middle-aged citizens who listen to the deliberations quietly and with arms folded. The first few items on the agenda are tax matters.

Meggen with 6,500 inhabitants – including about ten per cent foreigners - made a surplus of SFr14 million ($13.4 million) last year. The commune has one of the lowest tax rates in the region, and boasts a stunning view over Lake Lucerne.

The assembly then decides on four citizenship requests.

Maria's life

Maria B. (not her real name) and her son from Brazil, Monica C. from Hungary and 11-year-old Gregory F. from the United States have applied for Swiss passports.

"Could you please stand up so we can all see you," says the mayor of Meggen to Maria who comes first on the list.

He reads a summary of Maria's CV, explains where the 37-year-old consultant was born and that she divorced her Swiss ex-husband. She has two sons from two different fathers.

The assembly also hears that Maria likes photography and making gold jewellery. But she has had no time to join any of the local clubs and associations.

"Her life is here in Meggen. She can not imagine going back to Brazil or living elsewhere," the mayor concludes.

The candidates are asked to leave the assembly hall and wait outside after the presentation of the other three CVs.

Applause

The local council recommends approval of all four applications, saying face-to-face meetings had given a "very favourable assessment".

As there are no objections from the assembly floor the applications pass unanimously.

A vote by show of hand is only required if a citizen raises concerns and if these are considered justified.

"Let's call them in," says Mayor Andreas Heer. The four new Swiss citizens are welcomed with a round of applause by the 105-strong assembly and handed a yellow rose.

"My aim is to have a dignified procedure," says Heer. He adds that the task of the council is always the same, regardless of the financial situation of an applicant.

"It's really all about finding out whether the candidates feel integrated into society," he says.

Knowledge of the local language and tax obligations are of course also an issue, according to Heer.

The commune of Meggen is unlikely to change its citizenship procedure if voters approve the People's Party proposal on June 1.

"We will continue as before," Heer told swissinfo.

More Swiss

Maria says she was shaking like a leaf while waiting to be called back into the assembly hall.

The Swiss passport means a lot to her because she has been living in the country for more than 20 years. She feels at home here, her sons go to school and her mother and sister are also in Switzerland.

"It's true the authorities ask personal questions. But I have nothing to hide, " Maria brushes aside journalists' questions about what it feels like to be vetted in public.

Maria agrees that candidates for a Swiss passport are under a certain pressure to be "more Swiss than the Swiss".

But it would be no different for foreigners in her native Brazil. Candidates would be asked whether they are interested in football, she says.

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Corinne Buchser

In brief

Citizenship applications are decided by town hall assemblies or special committees.

Local authorities in 18 out of the country's 26 cantons regularly hold public meetings to decide on citizenship applications.

In 2003 the Federal Court banned secret ballot box decisions, following a series of allegedly racially motivated rejections of naturalisation requests.

Up to 90 communes – out of 2,800 nationwide – used the ballot box method before it was outlawed.

The rightwing Swiss People's Party wants to overturn the ban and exempt citizenship decisions from appeals.

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Naturalisations

Foreign residents must wait at least 12 years to be eligible to apply for citizenship.

Foreigners married to Swiss nationals can avail of a simplified procedure, reducing the number of years they have to wait.

Applicants must show that they are integrated into Swiss society, comply with Swiss law and pose no threat to internal or external security.

The cantonal and local authorities are responsible for naturalisation procedures.

In 2007, 45,042 applications were accepted, more than twice as many as ten years ago.

Foreign residents account for more than 20% of the population. One in four are Swiss-born.

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