Swiss in Britain urged to make voice heard

Swiss expatriates meeting in Scotland have heard a call for greater participation of the Swiss abroad in this October's federal elections.

This content was published on June 4, 2007 - 16:30

The annual general meeting of the Federation of Swiss Societies in Britain (FOSSUK) was held in Edinburgh, and delegates had the opportunity to visit the new Scottish parliament and compare political processes in Switzerland and Scotland.

The annual event – held in a different location each year - is a chance for Swiss clubs to share information and ideas. This year delegates also had a sense of their importance for the Swiss foreign ministry in Bern, which was represented by Ambassador Markus Börlin.

A growing number of Swiss are choosing to live abroad. At the end of December the figure stood at 645,000 – 11,000 up on the previous year. In Britain there were 27,326 Swiss, up 885 on 2005.

Georg Stucky, president of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad, said that while more and more Swiss were living overseas, few were choosing to make their voices heard on issues of concern to them in Switzerland.

Issues raised by Swiss in Britain during the two-day meeting from June 2-3 included changes to the pension scheme, health insurance provision and the closure of a number of Swiss consulates in western Europe. There were also concerns over Switzerland's tougher policy towards asylum seekers.

"Thin on the ground"

"Swiss abroad who take part in political discussions are thin on the ground," Stucky told the meeting.

At the same time, there was a growing awareness in Switzerland of the importance of the Swiss abroad, who in terms of numbers would constitute the third largest canton, after Zurich and Bern.

Stucky urged expatriates to get involved with the main political parties and to put themselves forward for election to parliament.

"The number of Swiss abroad who are members of the foreign branches of the parties in government is disappointingly low. And it's difficult to find Swiss residents abroad who are willing to stand for election."

The event also highlighted the growing political, cultural and economic importance of Scotland for Switzerland. A Swiss consulate was opened in the Scottish capital one year ago.

Democracy Scottish-style

Delegates caught a glimpse of the changed political reality when they visited the new Scottish parliament next door to the royal palace of Holyrood – the residence of Scottish monarchs before the union with England in the 17th century.

Created by Spanish architect Enric Moralles, the focus of the new steel, oak and granite building is the debating chamber. Its semi-circular shape, designed to foster a climate of cooperation, reminded some of the visiting Swiss of the federal parliament in Bern.

Others were struck by the similarities with the Swiss political system, particularly the rights of citizens to bring issues before parliament, in the form of petitions which are then studied by a committee.

But for Rosa Schwarz, at 25 the youngest member of the Swiss Club of Edinburgh, the Scottish model managed to surpass the Swiss.

"I think here it's even easier to make your voice heard, even children. Then there's the fact that one person can bring their opinion; In Switzerland you need loads of signatures before someone will look at your petition."

swissinfo, Morven McLean in Edinburgh

Key facts

645,010 Swiss lived abroad in 2006 (+1.7% on 2005 and +11.1% since 2000).
111,249 of the 494,802 expatriates aged over 18 - or 22.5% - have registered to vote.
Since 1992 Swiss abroad have the right to take part in federal votes/elections via mail from abroad.
There is currently no Swiss expatriate in parliament.

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Swiss-Scottish ties

The Swiss consulate in Edinburgh was opened in May, 2006.

Part of General Consul Bruno Widrig's job has been to promote Swiss culture in Scotland – for example organising visits by the Zurich ballet and the Mummenschanz theatre group.

There have also been roundtables between Swiss and Scottish banking groups and collaboration between universities with exchange programmes for professors.

Widrig told swissinfo Switzerland recognised the need for closer ties with Scotland now that the country has its own devolved government within Britain and the power to pass its own laws.

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