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Swiss Abroad Council needs to keep up with the times

A meeting of the Swiss Abroad Council in Bern. Adrian Moser Photography

The Council of the Swiss Abroad has begun its re-election process set to end in August. Founded over 100 years ago, its voting structures are outdated and don’t fully reflect the needs of the growing overseas Swiss population.

This content was published on March 27, 2021 - 09:00

Sixty Swiss nationals living in the United States recently met online early March. The Zoom meeting discussed what to expect from the next Council of the Swiss Abroad delegates which will run from 2021 to 2025. The discussion focused on a number of issues such as representation in national polls and banking fees.

The election of the Council of the Swiss Abroad is based on structures established in 1919, the same year the paper clip was invented. But the modern era throws up different demands while offering new possibilities. The Swiss overseas population is growing and its needs are not those of 100 years ago.

The Council is the representative body of the “Fifth” Switzerland – a parliament that meets twice a year. Although the body lacks both real power and a big budget, it is recognised in Switzerland as the voice of the Swiss Abroad. The Council is not named in any specific legislation, but the Swiss constitution includes a binding commitment towards citizens living abroad. The agenda mainly focuses on political subjects related to living overseas as well as on internal issues. Their resolutions are non-binding.

The essence of the Council is explained by its history. Founded after the First World War, for a long time it was the only voice back home for the Swiss living overseas. The Council fought for the political right of all citizens living abroad to vote in Switzerland. This was a great success.  The votes of the Swiss abroad now have a direct route to Switzerland with or without the Council. This was the beginning of a partial disempowerment.

Since then, the body has weakened further. The Council is made up of delegates from around 660 Swiss associations, which set up on every continent during the great waves of emigration from 1880. Today the heyday of these clubs is over. Only around 3% all Swiss people abroad now count themselves as members.

Of the 800,000 Swiss currently living abroad, around 170,000 are sufficiently interested in politics in their home country to have signed up to the electoral register. But only the few tens of thousands who are registered with associations in their resident countries are eligible to elect the Council.

If the 140-strong body was structured in a more representative way, its decisions would meet with greater domestic acceptance, its current president, Remo Gysin, has repeatedly stated. These are the people voting in the current election, which has been organised in almost the same way for the last 100 years. The instructionsExternal link sent to potential candidates for eight US Council seats illustrates how cumbersome the system is. Candidates must be “integrated in the local Swiss community and a member of the local Swiss club which has to support the candidacy and write a referral letter for the candidate.”

Requiring such letters of recommendation from associations is not only antiquated but also “extremely undemocratic”, complains Geneva parliamentarian Carlo Sommaruga, who has a seat on the Council. (SWI swissinfo.ch is also represented with a permanent seat on the Council).

Kai Reusser / swissinfo.ch

Some 80,000 Swiss people live in the US, but it is difficult to mobilise them for the Council’s election. Their details registered with the four Swiss consulates in the US are protected by confidentiality.

Digitisation could help remedy the deficits in democracy. When council meetings are held online, there are no travel expenses. The pandemic made it necessary for the Council of the Swiss Abroad to meet virtually – but this is an exception to the rule. During the Swiss Abroad USA Zoom discussion mentioned earlier, long-standing councillor David W. Mörker laid out the advantages of meeting in person. Politics functions better and ideas emerge from informal exchanges, he said.

Mörker, president of the US chapter of OSA, also points out the advantages of a Council member belonging to a country association. “How can you represent the community if you are not actively part of it?" he asks.

But exactly which community does the Council of the Swiss Abroad represent?

Most Swiss expats have no problem living abroad without joining an association, club or network in their new country. For many people, emigration is just a one-off life episode and they will eventually come back. Others only emigrate when they get old.

The Council of the Swiss Abroad, which is supposed to embody the diaspora, has not adapted to these changes. The number of Swiss living abroad is growing. Their needs are more numerous and diverse. They go beyond having a bank account. Questions such as voting rights for second generation of the Swiss abroad and flexible health insurance need to be addressed.

But the voice that can articulate this in Switzerland is at risk of losing its legitimacy from legislature to legislature.

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