The cabinet says the government should adopt a more coherent policy towards the Swiss living abroad, due to the increasing importance of the 700,000-strong community.
In a report published earlier this week, the cabinet said one federal ministry should in future deal with all expatriate issues.
The findings of the document were in response to a motion put forward in 2004 by senator Filippo Lombardi of the centre-right Christian Democrats, asking the government to assess the importance of the Swiss abroad.
In particular, the politician from canton Ticino wanted to know "the economic benefits for Switzerland due to the presence and activities of citizens living outside the country”.
The government was also asked to improve financial aid for institutions supporting the Swiss abroad, and – in order to increase their integration in the political process – find ways to keep them better informed and introduce electronic voting.
In the report, the government recognises the importance of the Swiss expatriate community and its political weight. In numbers, expats make up 10 per cent of the Swiss population, or – looking at the size of cantons – would represent the third largest after Zurich and Bern.
However, this was not enough to convince the cabinet to increase funding. While the ministers agreed more money is not justified at this time, Lombardi said the report’s findings left room for optimism.
“There are a few points which one hopes will lead to improvements in federal policy on the Swiss living abroad, since their importance has not been sufficiently recognised up until now. This is shown by repeated proposals to cut funding for supporting institutions.”
Lombardi also agreed with the recommendation to hand over responsibility for expat issues to a single ministry. “A framework law for expatriates should better protect their interests, since it’s more difficult to make your voice heard when you live outside the country. Up until now, no single minister has felt responsible for the Swiss abroad.”
The document acknowledges that 120,000 expats participate in national votes and elections, with the number increasing from year to year. The rise is due to changes in emigration trends over the past few decades showing that the majority of Swiss no longer go abroad to begin new lives, but for short- or medium-term stays.
“They use their knowledge and experience gained abroad to benefit Switzerland upon their return,” the report concludes. However, it went on to say that a more detailed study would need to be made to find out if there are any potential economic benefits for Switzerland.
The report highlights government services already available to expats: consular protection and judicial and emergency assistance, insurance and social welfare benefits, education, free movement within the European Union, and double taxation agreements.
The report does acknowledge policy shortcomings, including the fact that only half of all cantons give expats the right to vote in elections to the senate, as well as incomplete online services and the lack of a clear legal basis for addressing expat issues.
Added to that, Swiss abroad affairs are dealt with by numerous government offices and departments.
"The time has come to formulate a coherent policy for a community that is becoming more and more important,” the cabinet says in the report. In order to realise this, a working group would be set up to draft a framework law. In addition, all expat issues are to be entrusted to a single ministry.
"This is what we have been asking for for years,” said Rudolf Wyder, director of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), welcoming the proposals. “For the first time a vision has been formulated, as well as the desire to define a clear strategy for the Swiss abroad.”
But Wyder is disappointed with the report’s analysis of the economic weight of the expat community. “The document does not take into account sufficiently the contribution to our country by people moving around the world. It must be realised that, for example, industry, research, education and culture depend heavily on this mobility.”
The director of the OSA also criticised the cabinet’s proposal to end government funding for swissinfo.ch. "This is very disappointing. A target audience needs specialised information. And this type of information is designed to help the Swiss abroad maintain links with their homeland, and this service is not provided by other Swiss media.”
For parliamentarian Carlo Sommaruga, the report’s recommendations do not go far enough. He says more should be done to strengthen the political role of the Swiss abroad, “for example, by providing direct representation in parliament, as is already done in several other countries.”
Armando Mombelli, swissinfo.ch (Adapted from Italian by Dale Bechtel)
The request from senator Filippo Lombardi, signed by 26 parliamentarians, was submitted to the cabinet on October 7, 2004. Its list of demands included the following:
* to make a comprehensive report on the importance of the Swiss abroad and their role in Switzerland’s foreign affairs.
* to investigate the economic benefits Switzerland derives from the activities of Swiss expats.
* based on these findings, propose how funding for the Swiss abroad can be improved.
* promote greater involvement of expats in the Swiss political process by guaranteeing adequate information services and through the introduction of e-voting.
* to look into the possibility of inviting politicians from around the world with Swiss roots to conferences in Switzerland to strengthen relations with institutions in other countries.
Swiss expat community
According to the foreign ministry, 684,974 Swiss lived abroad in 2009 (+1.3% on 2008), compared with 7.8 million residents in Switzerland.
130,017 expatriates aged over 18 have registered to vote, an increase of 4.5%.
Most expatriates live in France, Germany and the US.
Since 1992 Swiss abroad have had the right to take part in federal votes/elections via mail from abroad.
More than 40 Swiss abroad candidates stood for the last parliamentary elections. In 2003, just 17 people living abroad stood for election.
There is currently no Swiss expatriate in parliament.