Is Switzerland the black sheep of Europe?

November 17, 2010, 10 Comments

Racism and xenophobia are alive and kicking in Switzerland, as this poster clearly shows. That black-sheep advert first appeared during the general election campaign of 2007 – and now it’s back. Or at least the worst part of it. The whole poster shows three white sheep standing on a Swiss flag,with one of them kicking a black sheep over the edge. Last time around it was condemned by the UN but helped the far-right party win the largest share of the vote. This time, it looks like it will help the same party win a controversial referendum on foreign criminals. If you thought the minaret vote gave the Swiss a bad press, this one will be far worse. Brace yourself Helvetia, there could be quite a storm coming.

On 28 November Switzerland votes in a referendum proposed by the Swiss People’s Party (in German, the Schweizerische Volkspartei, or SVP). The proposal, known in German as the Ausschaffungsinitiative, is to change the constitution so that any foreigner convicted of a serious crime would be automatically expelled from the country, no appeals, no exceptions. Expulsions already take place, to the tune of roughly 400 a year, but they are not mandatory and the rules differ between the cantons. So the SVP collected 210,000 signatures to force this vote but is the only main political party in favour, with most of the others (and the government) advocating a counter-proposal. That’s where it gets confusing.

The initial referendum is a popular initiative, one triggered by collecting enough signatures, but parliament and the government disagreed with it; many even think it is unconstitutional and breaks international law. So parliament put forward its own proposal, as it is entitled to do, and now Swiss voters get to choose. Just in case both are passed, then there’s a third question asking which of the two motions voters prefer. To add another layer of complexity, because a constitutional amendment is at stake, the winning proposal must get a majority of the popular vote and also a majority of the 26 cantons (known as a double majority) – one without the other isn’t enough.

Two choices

Both proposals allow for kicking foreign criminals out, which is why the Social Democrats are idealistically campaigning for 2x Nein (or No to both), but there are some big differences in the small print. The SVP initiative lists the crimes involved, without any reference to severity. So murder, rape, and armed robbery carry the same penalty of expulsion as breaking & entering and even benefit fraud. Kill someone or cheat the welfare system – all the same if you’re a foreigner. It also allows the list to be altered or added to at any time.

The counter proposal is a fluffier version. It has a similar shopping list of crimes (though drops welfare cheating in favour of grievous bodily harm), but restricts expulsion to convictions carrying a minimum one-year prison term. So stealing a TV from someone’s house is not the same as rape, and sharing cannabis with friends is not equivalent to dealing in crack. It also states that deportations must fall within both Swiss and international law, and brings in a bit saying that integration is important and must be promoted.

Of course in both, there’s no sign of corporate fraud, tax crimes, or bank secrecy. Clearly those sort of foreign criminals are welcome to stay, presumably because they aren’t a threat to little old ladies, but most likely because they make the country richer, and the SVP doesn’t want to piss off its friends in big business and banking. Nor are traffic offences (which account for 60% of all crime in Switzerland) mentioned, probably because 55% of the offenders are Swiss. It wouldn’t do to highlight that.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

The SVP has made creative use of government statistics, such as publicising the fact that about 70% of prisoners in Swiss jails are foreigners. That’s far higher than the foreign percentage in the general population (21.7%), but is that because foreigners are more likely to be arrested while Swiss might just be fined? Or is because foreigners, especially ones from the former Yugoslavia, face blatant discrimination in things such as jobs, housing, insurance, and even entry into nightclubs, so why should justice be any different? Or perhaps it’s purely because there are simply more foreigners in Switzerland – for one clear reason.

It’s much harder to become a naturalised citizen here than in other countries: you are not automatically Swiss if you are born here and both your parents are foreigners; you must live here 12 years before being able to apply; and the application process takes up to two years and costs thousands of francs. If Switzerland used the same rules as the USA (eg automatic birth rights, five-year residency, etc), the percentage of foreigners would drop to 6%. That’s a huge difference, and one which raises a good question: how many of those ‘foreign’ criminals would be nationals in another, less xenophobic country?

And that isn’t the only question.

  • A quarter of ‘foreigners’ were actually born and raised in Switzerland, some now third-generation. They are essentially Swiss, except on paper. Where are they going to be expelled to – a village in southern Europe which their grandparents left in the 1960s? 
  • Switzerland is part of the Schengen area, which allows borderless free movement of EU citizens. How do you stop them just coming back, or even expel them in the first place when they are allowed to live here?
  • What if the other country refuses to accept the exportees?
  • What about dual nationals – will they be stripped of Swiss citizenship and kicked out?
  • And most scarily of all, what about miscarriages of justice? Someone is expelled and loses everything, only for it later to be ruled a wrongful conviction. Swiss justice is no more foolproof than any other; mistakes will be made but these ones will have awful consequences.

The SVP are wolves in sheep’s clothing, a party run by millionaires posing as men of the people, men who make Mrs Thatcher look like a softy liberal. This referendum isn’t really about crime (after all, as the SVP states 1 in 2 serious crimes are committed by foreigners; that logically means that 1 in 2 are committed by Swiss), just as the minaret vote wasn’t about minarets. It’s really about discrimination and having the right sort of immigrants, preferably white, Christian and from north of the Alps. I fit into this category but three years ago I was subjected to regular verbal abuse for not being Swiss. Being publicly sworn at for only speaking High German and English made me realise how one poster can create a climate of fear, distrust and even hatred. This advert shows the SVP in its true colours – black, white and red, the colours used by the Nazi party. Perhaps they should just be called the NSVP and be done with it.

But there is hope. Actually, three hopes.

  1. a double majority may be beyond the reach of either proposal.
  2. even if passed, the initiative may be declared unconstitutional or in breach of anything from human rights’ law to Switzerland’s international treaties.
  3. Swiss voters will see sense and just say no. Twice.

Foreigner = criminal. That’s the message the SVP are spreading. But that’s as untrue as Swiss = xenophobe. Let’s hope the voters realise that.

Street protest - and the answer is not 18

10 Comments on "Is Switzerland the black sheep of Europe?"

  1. Patrick Wednesday November 17th, 2010 at 10:09 PM · Reply

    Thanks for your thoughtful post! You’re absolutely right; I couldn’t agree more, especially regarding the “party run by millionaires posing as men of the people” bit. The SVP politics is in fact a series of blatant punches in the face of the ordinary people, of “Otto Normalbürger” (called “Joe Bloggs” in Britain, I think?) – they’re not making Otto’s life better, quite the opposite, with their staunch anti-welfare and indeed only millionaire-serving stance, but poor punched Otto is grinning happily after each punch and thinking he’s being fondly caressed, as the SVP knows so well how to appael to base instincts, to nurture fears and to trap the people with gaudy initiatives that don’t solve a single real issue. It is a most despicable party indeed… well, however, currently only supported by roughly a third of the Swiss in elections, and let’s hope that this was their peak.

  2. Katharina Thursday November 18th, 2010 at 03:57 AM · Reply

    “Racism and xenophobia are alive and kicking in Switzerland, as this poster clearly shows. It first appeared during the general election campaign of 2007 – and now it’s back”

    I disagree with that statement. As a swiss expatriate now living in the US, my percpetion while still living in Switzerland was, and still is, that xenophobia always was and still is subtly engrained in their culture. To some extend even racist, yes. there are basic legal checks that are not implemented in the swiss legal framewrok. e.g Antidiscrimination laws, although exisitng on paper, are rarely enforced and it is very difficult to defend these rights in court. I am unaware of any sucessful lawsuit, that defended antidiscrimination rights in the workplace. It has to do with the way labor dispute resolution is set up.

    To some degree, family law in switzerland is discriminatory. for instance, same sex couples are barred from establishing a joint estate the same way heterosexual couples can. The same applies to survivorship (inheritance) and adoptions.

    People can still lose their jon baes on their sexual orientation and they have no legal recourse. It is so bad, that the very fact of their orientation is communicated to new employers during the referencing process.

    I think what happens in light of the general identity crisis of switzerland due to their political and reputanional isolation, that these tendencies more prominently rear their ugly head and apparently, the country is aunable to observe international legalstandards anymore, because campaigns in the stile of SVP violate several of those. The minarett clause, now passed, for instance vilates their own constitution and it is not enforceable. Anyone who wants to build a minarett can simply file a complaint at the hman rights court.

    To some degree, I find the Ausschaffungsinitiavie understandable, though, in light of the blatant abuse of the asylum seekrs process.

    But. In my opinion, criminals should first serve their sentence in the country where a violation occurred and then have their residency status put on probation. another violationa and the status would be declined.

    droping this concept actually removes the principle of due process from the penal system.
    so it is just stupid.
    there already are laws under which residncy status can be revoked. so why not enforce these? which is the real problem: no enforcement of exisitng laws.

    on the side: swiss nationality can not be revoked.

  3. Rebecca Thursday November 18th, 2010 at 02:52 PM · Reply

    Ok, but wouldn’t you rather get rid of murderers and rapists? Too bad we can’t banish all of them including the swiss ones.

  4. david Wednesday December 15th, 2010 at 10:10 PM · Reply

    Great stuff, I love this site. This isn’t a Swiss problem, everybody has it. Too many (whatever that means) representatives of a strange culture in a society must result in problems, ranging from strange kitchen smells to parties that start at 2 0’clock in the morning to resolving conflicts with violence and calling people that don’t like this racists. I don’t agree with people being automatically ‘sent back’ and I don’t think that the Swiss parliament will ever be able to apply this law in a way that will be conform with the Swiss constitution and be convenable to the European Parliament. However: let’s be honest: if you let people in other countries in Europe vote, they would ALL have voted the same. I have been living here for 30 years, have been through the whole humiliating immigration process, and feel that I can talk about racism without being called a racist. Immigrants in the third generation don’t have to pay thousands to become Swiss, it is very easy and not expensive. They don’t want to become eligible for military service, is all.
    Speak also to teachers that work in areas with majority immigrant children. they have problems with disinterested, unmotivated children and parents that think they can bribe / threaten teachers into giving good marks.
    I know that this is only a part of the story. The Swiss are supposed to be tolerant of people that aren’t tolerant at all. As are a lot of other Europeans. Don’t be surprised if it is so easy to manipulate people. david

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