Posted on October 11, 2004

Switzerland, A Model For America

Srdja Trifkovic, Chronicles Extra, Sep. 28

Switzerland has the toughest naturalization rules in Europe. If you want to become Swiss you must live in the country legally for at least 12 years—and pay taxes, and have no criminal record—before you can apply for citizenship. It still does not mean that your wish will be granted, however, and the fact that you were born in Zurich or Lugano does not make any difference. There are no “amnesties” and illegals are deported if caught. Even if an applicant satisfies all other conditions, the local community in which he resides has the final say: it can interview the applicant and hold a public vote before naturalization is approved. If rejected he can apply again, but only after ten years.

All this is intolerable to the country’s enlightened bien-pensants who run the federal government in Berne. They want citizenship applications to be processed centrally, “along national guidelines,” taking the decision out of the hands of local communities. They insist that resident aliens, a fifth of the country’s 7.5 million people, need to be “fully integrated” and that the natives must accept the “reality” of multiculturalism.

For the second time in a decade such proposals were defeated in a nation-wide referendum last Sunday (September 26). Swiss voters rejected a government initiative to grant automatic citizenship to third-generation Swiss-born aliens and to simplify naturalization for the second generation. Most French-speakers (18 percent) supported the proposals, but they were heavily outvoted by the country’s German-speaking cantons which account for two-thirds of the population, and by the Italian-speaking Ticino (6 percent).

The successful “no” campaign was orchestrated by the populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), one of the four parties in the ruling coalition, led by maverick millionaire Christoph Blocher. He first achieved prominence 18 years ago when he founded a lobby group, the Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland (CINS). Blocher (64) is a strong opponent of the European Union who successfully fought a proposal to take Switzerland into the European Economic Area in 1992. He has also successfully campaigned against the abolition of the Swiss army (1989), against involving Swiss troops in UN peacekeeping operations (1994), and against the country’s EU membership (2001). He also campaigned against UN membership in 2002, but in what appears to have been an untypical fit of absent-mindedness the Swiss decided otherwise. A year ago the SVP won the plurality of the vote in parliamentary elections after an aggressive campaign in which the SVP blamed immigrants—specifically mentioning black Africans and Albanians—for the country’s rising crime rate. Last December, to the chagrin of Brussels, he joined the seven-member Federal Cabinet in which his party has two seats.

The result of the Swiss referendum should regale the heart of every true conservative for three reasons.

It is, first of all, a victory for local democratic institutions of very long standing over the tendency of state bureaucracy to centralize all power. Except for a few years of centralized government of the “Helvetic Republic” during Napoleon’s occupation, Switzerland has been a confederation of local communities as established in the Pact of 1291, with most responsibility for public affairs in the hands of the local authorities and its 20 cantons and 6 half-cantons. In other words, Switzerland is still today what the United States had been before 1861. It is a little-known fact that the Swiss Constitution of 1848 was modeled on the U.S. constitution of 1787. Its adoption was preceded by a brief civil war between Protestant liberals seeking a centralized national state and Catholic conservatives clinging on to the old order. The decentralizing Catholics won, and adopted the American constitutional model as the one best suited to their country’s traditions. The Swiss have preserved that model ever since, while America has moved on.

Secondly, the referendum reflects the ability of a Western electorate to make an accurate assessment of the implications of granting citizenship to Muslims. The SVP warned that Muslims would eventually become a majority in Switzerland if the citizenship rules were eased, and this, it is widely believed, tipped the balance. SVP’s Ulrich Schlüer said their impact showed that the government had tried to conceal and important issue from voters. In the canton of Valais the SVP further drove the multiculturalists wild with a poster featuring Osama bin Laden on a Swiss identity card and the caption, “Don’t let yourself be bullied.” As it happens the warning was based on a sound precedent: one of the al-Qa’ida leader’s half-brothers, Yeslam, lives in Switzerland—and holds a Swiss passport! Another advertisement that appeared in newspapers across the country had the banner headline “Will Muslims soon be in the majority?” It warned that “the birth rate in Islamic families is substantially higher than in other families,” that at present rates of growth Muslims would outnumber Christians within 20 years, and that “Muslims place their religion above our laws.” All three claims were true, but nevertheless they were termed “racist” and “xenophobic” by the press all over Europe. Had Switzerland joined the EU in 2002 such ads would have been illegal.

Last but by no means least the Swiss result is encouraging because at least one civilized country in the world will continue to uphold the right of local communities to decide who will qualify for naturalization. Unique in today’s Western world, this healthy sense of Swiss citizenship reminds us of the Greek polis. It reflects an underlying assumption of kinship among citizens that cannot be fulfilled by mere residence and observance of the rules. Naturalization in Athens was possible but difficult; it was a rare privilege and anything but a right. Likewise in today’s Switzerland if you want to belong, but do not belong by blood, you have to prove a high degree of cultural and civilizational kinship with the host-society. Like in Athens, in today’s Switzerland citizenship includes the right and duty to fulfill certain functions, among which military service is very important. It is remarkable that to this day every Swiss male over 18 must be prepared to serve in the country’s citizen-army; after completing their basic training they keep their weapons at home, and refusal to perform military service is a criminal offence. The thought must have crossed the mind of a few Swiss reservists that all too many aspiring foreigners could never be trusted with those weapons. The Swiss understand, even when they do not know, that the collective striving embodied in “We the People” makes no sense unless there is a definable “people” to support it. They sense that many immigrants have no kinship with the striving and no connection to the “people,” except for the unsurprising desire to partake in its wealth.

This sense is light years away from the “multicultural” understanding of citizenship promoted in the European Union and in North America. A recent feature by Radio Netherlands International illustrates the gap. It complained that the Swiss are not “quite ready to accept the reality of a multi-cultural society.” It bewailed the fate of one Fatma Karademir, 23, who was born in Switzerland and has never lived anywhere else but under Swiss law she is Turkish just like her parents. The Dutch radio was indignant that Fatma’s recent application for citizenship was rejected by her village and she’ll be able to reapply in ten years:

And when she finally does come before the citizenship committee, Fatma knows the fact that she has lived all her life in Switzerland will count less than the answers she gives to the committee’s questions. “They ask if I can imagine marrying a Swiss boy, or do you know the Swiss national anthem, or which team I would support if the Swiss have a soccer game with Turkey. They ask such stupid questions.”

The fact that Fatma calls such questions “stupid” illustrates (1) that she was quite properly denied naturalization; and (2) that the village (town, commune), and not some enlightened bureaucrat in Berne, should continue to have the final say in the matter.

And talking of soccer, let us recall that match in Los Angeles between Mexico and the United States in February 1998. The stands were full of Mexican flags. The fans booed The Star-Spangled Banner, and a few brave souls who dared wave American flags were pelted with beer cans and food debris—as were the American soccer players. No doubt many of the offenders were U.S. citizens. One can only wish that they, and people like them, were subjected to the test of a Swiss village naturalization board.