Parliament passes new Swiss citizenship law

While it will take less time to become eligible for citizenship, some hurdles will become higher Keystone

Under a new naturalisation law rubber stamped by parliament on Friday, foreigners will have to wait ten years, rather than 12, before they can request citizenship. But the Swiss passport remains one of the most difficult to obtain in Europe.

This content was published on June 20, 2014 - 09:35
Jo Fahy with input from Armando Mombelli,

After a debate on the law that went back and forth between the two houses for three years, a special conference came up with a palatable compromise on Thursday, which has now gained final approval. The House of Representatives passed it with 135 votes for and 60 votes against, while the Senate approved it 29 to 12.

“The government is not aiming to naturalise the smallest or even the largest number of people in the future. Its objective it to naturalise the best integrated people in Switzerland,” said Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, as she outlined the government’s position during the parliamentary debates.

“There are foreigners who are extremely well integrated into our society after five years and there are some who are not, even after decades here. In the future, the granting of citizenship should not mostly depend on how long a person has been resident in Switzerland.”

What's in the law?

The legislation states that in future a person will only need to be resident in Switzerland for ten years before they can apply for citizenship.

Candidates will need to have a C residency permit, which is granted after five or ten years of residency, depending on the country of origin. This permit allows unlimited residency in Switzerland.

Candidates also will have had to be resident for a certain period in a particular canton, this can vary from two to five years, depending on the canton.

Young people can benefit from facilitated naturalisation, with the years between the ages of eight and 18 counting as double towards the residency requirement.

Currently around 30,000-40,000 people a year are naturalised in Switzerland. At the end of April 2014, foreigners accounted for 23.5% of the population.

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Cabinet had therefore suggested lowering the minimum length of time spent in Switzerland before an application could be lodged to eight years, as an integration incentive. Although the Senate supported this, the House of Representatives did not.

In the end, ten years was proposed as a compromise for the minimum residency duration, instead of the current 12. The reduction still puts the country among the European nations with the highest residency requirements before a citizenship request can be made. Neighbouring Italy and Austria also impose ten years.

Young people, refugees

For young people, the years between the ages of ten and 20 now count as double towards the residency requirement.

The House of Representatives wanted to change this to between the ages of five and 15, while the conciliation conference suggested between the ages of eight and 18. It was this halfway point that finally proved acceptable to the majority in both houses.

Another controversial point was whether the years spent in Switzerland with a temporary right to remain - as is the case for refugees or asylum seekers - should continue to count towards the residency time needed when applying for citizenship.

The conciliation conference had again recommended an option exactly halfway between the two prevailing points of view – that half of these years should count towards the total.

A bitter pill to swallow

The parties on the political left felt the conditions for naturalisation were already too strict. The Green party parliamentarian for Canton Geneva, Ueli Leuenberger, had argued strongly against making it more difficult for young people to become Swiss citizens.

Social Democrat parliamentarian Silvia Schenker said the new law meant that that “only the perfect Swiss should be able to get a Swiss passport”. She continued that foreigners who live in Switzerland “are a part of society, they live and work here just like us… unfortunately, the balance at the end of all of this is negative”.

Sommaruga was also not totally satisfied, saying on Thursday that in terms of integration there had been a “missed opportunity” in the law because “integration had become more important, but the efforts towards it had not been honoured”.

Some parts of the revision of the law were less tricky. Parliament had already decided to harmonise the vastly different cantonal and communal laws on naturalisation.

The law also formulates the criteria for successful integration, including upholding security and public order, respecting the values set out the in the Swiss Constitution, and being proficient in one of the country’s national languages.

European comparison

Even with the new figure of ten years, Switzerland remains one of the strictest countries in Europe in terms of residency requirements before a naturalisation request.

According to the EUDO Observatory on Citizenship, only six other countries, including Italy, Spain and Austria, require ten years.

Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania require eight years, Norway and Greece need seven and Portugal six.

France, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and the Czech Republic require five years.

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