Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Caterina Naegeli
Buergi Naegeli Rechtsanwaelte

The controversial use of the ballot box to decide on applications for Swiss citizenship has now come to a temporary end. After a long back and forth the Senate finally approved a proposal that outlaws anonymous votes.

Switzerland has some of the toughest citizenship rules in the world. Being born in Switzerland does not grant the right to be Swiss. The children and even grandchildren of foreign immigrants are not entitled to citizenship. Foreign residents have to undergo a two-phased process before they may receive the country’s red passport.

In phase one, they have to file their application at the Aliens’ Police in the municipality of their residence. From there it is sent to the Federal Department of Justice, which will give a principal authorisation if some basic conditions are met. Typically applicants have to live uninterruptedly in the country for at least 12 years before they can apply, which is quite a long time compared to the required four to ten years in EU states. Besides being be able to speak fluently either German, French, Italian or Romantsch (a language which is only spoken in the canton of Grisons) they must show integration into the Swiss way of life, familiarity with Swiss habits, customs and traditions, and compliance with the Swiss rule of law. And of course they must not pose any danger to Switzerland’s internal or external security.

In phase two, cantons and municipality of residence can impose their own requirements, which may be additional to those imposed by the confederation, and set the cost of acquiring citizenship before approving it. The applicants must testify at a local citizenship committee, who will interview them to determine whether they can be entitled to Swiss citizenship. The final decision lies with the local communities.

This final decision has been subject to discussions for some time now. It is regarded as a political act and adjudicated by either the parish assembly or the municipal council. Years ago the rightwing Swiss Peoples Party (SVP) started an initiative, which aims at handing over the final say on citizenship applications to the voters in an anonymous poll. Critics fear that the floodgates to biased and arbitrary decisions would be wide open. Already ballot box procedures have been subject to media attention and heated criticism, notably when voters in the town of Emmen near Lucerne repeatedly rejected the naturalisation of foreigners, especially those from the Balkans. Apparently this anonymous procedure can pose unsurmountable problems for applicants whose only shortcoming may be a non-european sounding name. Since the proposal also demands that the verdict is final and unappealable, the procedure would furthermore be contradictory to the European Human Rights Convention.

But now the parliament has outlawed ballot box votes on citizenship. The Senate finally followed the House of Representatives in approving a counter-proposal to the SVP initiative that only an elected body or a local assembly must deal with citizenship requests. This decision came after a long road with several rounds of debate in parliament over the past few years and effectively confirms a 2003 Federal Court ruling (decision of the 09. July 2003, 1P.228/2002/sta, 129 I 217, ).

But the SVP has forced a nationwide vote on the issue, likely to take place on the 1. July 2008. This upcoming vote again promises a heated debate, even though the initiative barely gathered enough signatures to be approved.