Politicians take on citizenship court ruling

Should voters decide who gets one of these? Keystone

Parliament is due to discuss a proposal this week to challenge a Federal Court ruling on Switzerland's citizenship procedure.

This content was published on October 1, 2005 - 14:34

The proposal by the rightwing People's Party wants to grant the cantons and local authorities full autonomy, overruling the controversial court verdict.

In 2003 Switzerland's highest court ruled that failed candidates for Swiss citizenship must be given a reason for their rejection, in a bid to avoid arbitrary decisions.

The judges implicitly outlawed citizenship from being decided at the ballot box, and barred parliaments and other local assemblies from having the final say on the issue.

The ruling came after voters in the town of Emmen near Lucerne turned down nearly 100 applications from foreigners, mostly from the Balkans, apparently for racist reasons. Similar votes in other parts of central Switzerland caused a public outcry.

Local autonomy

The House of Representatives is expected to consider a proposal by the rightwing Swiss People's Party parliamentarian, Rudolf Joder. He says the court ruling leaves many questions open which need to be addressed by lawmakers.

Joder wants cantonal and local authorities to rule on whether citizenship requests are decided at the ballot box or by parliaments and assemblies. He also wants to make it impossible for rejected candidates to appeal against a decision.

"Citizenship issues are a political matter to be dealt with by citizens or parliaments, and not by an administrative body, be it politicians or judges," he said.

Joder added that his proposal compliments similar plans by his party to force a nationwide vote on the issue. A committee is due to hand in the necessary signatures for a people's initiative in November.

Joder said a vote in canton Bern last month which granted the cantonal government and local councils the exclusive right to decide on citizenship was not a setback.

"I don't think the Bern vote is indicative of our attempts at the national level. Also the trend in other regions of the country appears to be more favourable towards us."

Arbitrary decisions

The centre-left Social Democratic Party is strongly opposed to the People's Party proposal. "It would be disastrous if applicants were again at the mercy of voters, parliaments or assemblies," said parliamentarian Vreni Hubmann.

She argued that for data-protection reasons it is impossible to provide an entire parliament with the necessary personal information on candidates.

She believes it makes sense to limit local autonomy on this issue.

"The communes could define their own set of criteria for candidates. But if applicants fulfil these conditions they should receive the Swiss passport," she said.

The final say

Hans Geser, a professor of sociology at Zurich University, said the People's Party proposals were a legitimate attempt to launch a political debate on a highly emotional topic.

"Politics is not just a simple legal matter in Switzerland. The people have the final say."

In September 2004, Swiss voters rejected parliament-backed proposals to make it easier for young foreigners to become citizens.

It was the second time in a decade that voters refused to ease citizenship rules. Foreigners currently number 1.5 million – about 20 per cent of the population.

Citizenship applicants must win approval from three different authorities, including their local council.

It is also an expensive procedure with no guarantees that the application will be successful.

As a result, Switzerland has one of the lowest levels of naturalisation in Europe.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Key facts

The normal naturalisation process is based on approval by the federal, cantonal and local authorities, which set their own rules and fees.
Applicants must have lived in the country for a certain number of years and prove they are integrated into Swiss society.
Switzerland has one of the lowest levels of naturalisation in Europe.

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In brief

The Federal Court in 2003 effectively ruled that citizenship requests must not be decided at the ballot box, or by parliaments or other assemblies.

The rightwing Swiss People's Party is collecting signatures to challenge the court decision in a nationwide vote.

A People's Party parliamentarian has put forward a similar proposal to be discussed by the House of Representatives next week.

Both proposals are aimed at granting the local and cantonal authorities full autonomy on citizenship issues.

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