Swiss expatriates meeting in Wales have been working out how to attract younger members. They also witnessed a unique example of cultural harmony.This content was published on June 23, 2009 - 08:06
swissinfo.ch attended the 44th annual general meeting of the Federation of Swiss Societies in Britain (FOSSUK) in Cardiff and heard what progress had been made and what challenges lie ahead.
The three-day event – held in a different location each year – began with a concert on Friday evening by the BBC Welsh Orchestra, conducted by Switzerland's Thierry Fischer.
In the interval swissinfo.ch was approached by an elegant lady saying presumably what she thought of the performance so far. "I'm sorry, I don't speak Welsh," I said. "Neither do I," replied the Swiss German, now speaking English, who had lived in London since the 1960s.
Switzerland and Wales are superficially similar: both have a guttural language of which speakers are fiercely proud, a rugged natural beauty and relatively small populations (Cardiff is only a few thousand heads smaller than Zurich).
FOSSUK's delegates however have little in common other than their Swiss roots. There was the Swiss social worker who helps her British-based compatriots in need; the Welshman born in Ethiopia to a Swiss mother – not to mention members from the oldest Swiss society in the world: the 150-year-old club in Manchester.
On Saturday, once apologies had been read out for why representatives from a third of FOSSUK's 25 societies and clubs couldn't be present, the voting started. Two FOSSUK members and two non-members from the wider Swiss community were elected as "British" delegates to the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA).
The successful non-members turned out to be the only two who had applied. This resulted in an open debate on the organisation's long-term future and how to attract fresh Swiss blood.
"It's a concern – there's no doubt about it. It's sad to say but younger Swiss people seem to have different ideas, and belonging to a Swiss society or club might well be the last thing on their minds," FOSSUK president Freddie Wyser, who has lived in Edinburgh for the past 30 years, told swissinfo.ch.
"Some societies do better than others, but I think it's largely down to how much a society gets into it, as it were. The only way you can recruit new members is to have a programme of events for a calendar year to entice a younger generation."
And how are Swiss-British relations in general?
"It depends what circles you move in!" he said. "For the average Swiss in Britain, we don't feel any difference in relations with the English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Scots. If you go further up the ladder and start to talk to bankers and so on, ideas are slightly different..."
swissinfo.ch then climbed to the very top of the ladder and put the same question to the Swiss ambassador to Britain, Alexis Lautenberg.
"Well, they're very old relations that are determined by many common values. We're both highly pragmatic, very industrious countries, both very open towards the outer world – but there are of course also areas where we are competitors, particularly in the fields of the capital markets and financial centres."
Asked about the impact of the global economic crisis, Lautenberg explained that Britain was among the first countries to be affected and Switzerland was now among the last – "simply because we're very vulnerable on the export side and this is where we're now going through a very difficult period".
The ambassador stressed however the importance of OSA and FOSSUK for organising the interests and representation of the Swiss abroad at the institutional level.
"We're living in a world where there are very important changes – governments are under pressure, budgets are under pressure and cuts are being made across the board – so it's very important that some of the vital functions be kept that allow Swiss abroad to maintain links and have the possibility to express their views on things Swiss."
One positive development was the recent news that Swiss from canton Basel City living abroad could vote online in the future.
"We're very happy about it. Basel took a major step on a long road," Ruedi Wyder, director of the OSA, told swissinfo.ch.
"The OSA has asked for this process to be sped up because our electorate abroad needs it. People are often prevented from voting and participating in elections in Switzerland – although they have the right to do so – simply by practical obstacles like a slow postal system. The obvious answer is an electronic vote."
Language of music
Delegates, coming up for air after four hours of administration and speeches by guests including ambassador Lautenberg, Wyder and indeed swissinfo.ch, then headed off to Cardiff Castle for some history before the weekend's highlight.
St Peter's Church was the scene for a memorable concert given by two choirs: local singers Côr Godre'r Garth, and special guests, Vos da Locarno, a mixed 40-strong choir from Ticino, performing for the first time abroad.
In a battle of the bands, the Swiss were first on stage, singing six moving folk songs depicting various human emotions.
After the Welsh sang half a dozen of their favourites, both choirs merged to sing (twice) Mozart's sublime Ave Verum Corpus.
Next year FOSSUK will convene in London. It will be a tough act to follow.
Thomas Stephens in Cardiff, swissinfo.ch
According to the Swiss foreign ministry, 676,176 Swiss lived abroad in 2008 (+1.2% on 2007), compared with 7.6 million residents in Switzerland.
124,399 expatriates aged over 18 have registered to vote, an increase of 4.2%.
Since 1992 Swiss abroad have the right to take part in federal votes/elections via mail from abroad.
More than 40 Swiss abroad candidates stood for the October 21 parliamentary elections. In 2003, just 17 people living abroad stood for election.
There is currently no Swiss expatriate in parliament.
Freddie Wyser, a retired chef and food industry specialist, has lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, for the past 30 years. He has been FOSSUK president for the past two years and a member of the Swiss Club Edinburgh for five years.
Council of the Swiss Abroad
The Council of the Swiss Abroad is made up of 160 representatives of the expatriate community and of public life in Switzerland.
The assembly, which meets twice a year, is the senior body of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA).
This year's congress will take place in Lucerne in August.
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