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US "backburner constituents" voice concerns

Americans abroad watch intently as Obama and McCain clash in their first presidential debate

(Keystone)

With the US economy on the brink of meltdown and elections looming, Americans in Switzerland have been watching unfolding events with a mix of gloom and excitement.

swissinfo attended a dinner in Geneva organised by the American Citizens Abroad (ACA) organisation to gauge the concerns of United States expats less than one month ahead of the presidential vote.

The evening began in a party atmosphere at the Hotel Richemond in Geneva on Saturday evening as a group of 60 Americans met to celebrate the ACA's 30th birthday.

The ACA is a non-partisan, non-governmental association with its headquarters in Geneva that works to defend the interests of the six million Americans living abroad, 30,000 of whom are registered in Switzerland.

While citizenship and taxation are two of the major preoccupations of the ACA and of many US expats, recent events on Wall Street dominated conversations on Saturday night.

"The economy is on the edge of recession and people don't know if it's going to fall off the cliff," said Jackie Bugnion, a former economist, who has lived in Switzerland for the past 43 years.

Unreliable ratings

Bugnion described her shock at the recklessness of banks and rating agencies, which gave AAA (very safe) ratings to "funny money" grouping subprime loans.

"The Bush administration also has to take some of the blame as it advocated total deregulation," she said.

Andy Sundberg, spokesman for ACA, felt society was paying the price for buying into Reaganomics "theology".

"The whole house of cards has collapsed and, guess what, we have to bail out the bankers," he said. "We are at a crossroads and I think there will be much deeper thinking about whether this is how we want our society to be structured."

"It's a mess," acknowledged author Patric Hale, likening the recent crisis to a financial "heart attack".

"But it's a global problem and that's one of the reasons why so many Americans really didn't understand how serious this was," said Hale, who doubted US economic primacy would be affected.

But the author was unsure which presidential candidate was best placed to sort out the financial chaos.

"I'm sorry to say that neither of them has much of an understanding of economics," said Hale, a self-declared Republican Party supporter.

"Foreign trade matters"

According to Bugnion, the seriousness of the current financial crisis has made the US sit up to the fact that "foreign trade matters".

Hale agreed: "Look at all the nonsense over the $700-billion rescue plan for the economy. We still lose $800 billion in trade every year, and worse, we have a $2-trillion deficit in our international investment portfolio – 25 per cent of our GDP."

But the US government has treated the US abroad worse than other industrialised countries and penalises them for going overseas to do the nation's business, he said.

Since 1962 Americans living and studying abroad have been subject to double taxation: in the country where they are based and in the US. On top of this, since 2006 new legislation has pushed the US overseas into a higher tax bracket.

Citizenship claims

US citizenship is another hot topic for the Americans abroad.

Children of two American parents living abroad don't usually have problems claiming US citizenship, but the situation can be "very difficult" if one of the parents is not American and the child is born overseas, said Sundberg.

"The US runs roughshod over some of the most sacred tenets of the US Constitution – the integrity of the family – and some kids born to US citizens are even stateless overseas," he said.

"It's almost as if the US abroad deserve to be badly treated as they've chosen to live somewhere else than the United States."

This is in sharp contrast to the situation of the French, Portuguese, Italian or even Swiss abroad, said Sundberg, who went on to praise the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad and efforts to give a voice to Swiss living around the world.

"We are the only country which reaches overseas and extracts billions of dollars of taxes every year," he complained.

"The US doesn't want anything to do with us. They spend $2 trillion a year but there's not a single person among the hundreds of thousands who work for the US government designated to coordinate or to be responsible for the millions of Americans abroad."

"We don't have any representation," agreed Peter Bordui, a fibre-optic telecommunications expert. "It's a disgrace. I feel pretty disenfranchised."

Toss up

As it's election year the ACA has received statements from the Barack Obama and John McCain campaigns outlining their positions on the main issues troubling Americans abroad.

So which one looks the more serious?

"I think Obama has a wider worldwide perspective than McCain," said Bugnion. "McCain's still living in the last century."

"Obama talks a good story but has no record," countered Hale. "It's like saying to your 16-year-old teenager who hasn't really got his driver's licence, 'Go ahead and take out the Mercedes'."

"I find it hard to decide if either is in a position to do anything on our behalf," said Sundberg. "Logically you'd think McCain would come to our help as he was born overseas. But he's been in the Senate for a long time and hasn't done a thing for the US overseas.

The priority for Americans abroad, viewed as "backburner constituents", is to get their own directly elected representative in Congress, said Sundberg.

But despite the doom and gloom, he remains optimistic.

"I think people realise it's time to wake up. I think we're in for some interesting times over the next months and years as the US redefines itself and starts to take itself seriously," he said.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

In brief

It is estimated that there are six million Americans living abroad. Roughly 30,000 American citizens are registered in Switzerland (2000 statistics) with 14,000 estimated to live in the French-speaking part of the country. The world headquarters of American Citizens Abroad is in Geneva.

Eligible overseas voters are entitled to have their ballots counted in the state where they last lived. Both parties feel that US voters abroad can make a difference.

This year Democrats overseas took part in their own primary, electing 22 delegates from abroad to take part in a national convention in Denver in August.

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