The Swiss expat community could not have had a more picturesque setting for the annual general meeting (AGM) of the Federation of Swiss Societies in Britain (Fossuk).
But the beauty of the ancient city of York in the north of England and the wealth of sightseeing opportunities enjoyed by the delegates and attending dignitaries did not distract them from the business at hand, and on some issues passions ran high.
Nevertheless, perhaps because of the fresh northern air, or simply being in a beautiful, historic city, this year's annual gathering was markedly upbeat compared to twelve months earlier when the focus was on dwindling finances. It seemed Fossuk had come through the recession unscathed.
Delegates from all corners of Britain were in town and the day began with an informative and engaging tour of York Minster. The site of this architectural masterpiece can be traced back to Roman times and it was built as the seat of the archbishop of York.
David Wardill from York Swiss Club and a registered volunteer guide captivated his audience as he brought to life the long history of northern Europe’s greatest gothic cathedral.
Following the two-hour tour there was still enough time before the AGM for some delegates to climb the 275-steps to the top of the Minster’s Central Tower for the spectacular views across the rooftops of this walled city.
There was much expectation as the meeting got underway. The main talking points were on the impending federal elections and there were impassioned calls for Britain's Swiss diaspora to exercise their political right and vote in October.
There were also strong words voiced against the foreign ministry’s restructuring policy, which has led to the closure of some Swiss consulates.
One of the most recent victims of the cuts was the office of the Consulate General of Switzerland in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, which closed its doors earlier this year.
On a more positive note, the Organisation of Swiss Abroad (OSA) proved it had embraced the latest digital technology and introduced the expat community to a global social network to rival Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn - the e-platform SwissCommunity.org, or as Rudolf Wyder, Director of OSA told swissinfo.ch, "the virtual Club of the global Switzerland".
Not quite ten months since its launch, SwissCommunity.org already boasts 7,000 members.
Proceedings started to heat up when official dignitaries from Switzerland took the floor.
Jean-Francois Lichtenstern from the Directorate of Consular Affairs, a new unit within the foreign ministry, was the first of the guest speakers to talk.
There was a frisson in the air as he tried to justify his department's restructuring policy, which has led to the closure of many consulates.
Fossuk President Freddie Wyser made Lichtenstern aware of the ill-feeling felt amongst expats in Scotland following the downgrading of its Consul General’s office to an honorary role.
"I can assure you not too many people applaud the current situation." he said. "Club members in places like Inverness in the north of Scotland are concerned about the longer distances to their nearest Swiss consulate and the additional costs it will incur.”
The consulate issue
One of the highlights of this year's meeting came in direct response to Lichtenstern's attempt to explain the need to consolidate the network of Swiss embassies.
Jacques-Simon Eggly, president of OSA and a first-time contributor to Fossuk's AGM, opened his presentation by jokingly reminding British expats they didn't need to worry any longer about the closure of more consulates, because they had all already been closed.
After a short burst of laughter the room fell silent as the full magnitude of what had just been said sank in.
Eggly went on to passionately explain the importance of consulates in countries with large populations of Swiss expats, not where few Swiss lived, like Bangladesh or in emerging economy nations, such as China and India.
"We need consulates in countries like the UK, France, Germany and Italy." he said, "These European Union countries are important friends of ours. That is where the majority of our Swiss citizens abroad live and that is where our consulates should be."
Overhasty reform package
Eggly also described further drastic measures expected to be enforced by the foreign ministry in the coming months.
"There will soon no longer be any Swiss consulate in Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic", he told delegates, "Swiss citizens in those countries will now have to travel to the Austrian capital, Vienna, if they require an appointment at a Swiss mission."
The OSA president went on to criticise the foreign ministry for pushing ahead too hastily with its reform programme before viable alternative measures were in place to appease disgruntled Swiss citizens abroad.
As the sun came out towards the end of the four hour meeting, delegates were encouraged to continue their exploration of Britain's best preserved medieval city before attending a reception and dinner at Bedern Hall, a 14th century building with historic links to the Minster.
Fossuk is a voluntary, non-profit, non-party political organisation of a co-coordinating and interactive nature.
Fossuk and its constituent societies, clubs and institutions, otherwise known as corporate members, fall within the general guidelines of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad.end of infobox
SwissCommunity.org is the latest service offered by the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA).
It is seen as the ideal means to keep 700,000 Swiss abroad in contact with each other and for strengthening ties with Switzerland.
The initiative was officially launched in August last year and 7000 members are already communicating via this social networking platform.
The aim is to keep expats informed about current affairs in Switzerland, to strengthen relations with people’s cantons of origin and to bring the network of Swiss living abroad closer together.end of infobox