Switzerland: Europe’s heart of darkness?
Switzerland is known as a haven of peace and neutrality. But today it is home to a new extremism that has alarmed the United Nations. Proposals for draconian new laws that target the country’s immigrants have been condemned as unjust and racist. A poster campaign, the work of its leading political party, is decried as xenophobic. Has Switzerland become Europe’s heart of darkness? By Paul Vallely
Published: 07 September 2007
At first sight, the poster looks like an innocent children’s cartoon. Three white sheep stand beside a black sheep. The drawing makes it looks as though the animals are smiling. But then you notice that the three white beasts are standing on the Swiss flag. One of the white sheep is kicking the black one off the flag, with a crafty flick of its back legs.
The poster is, according to the United Nations, the sinister symbol of the rise of a new racism and xenophobia in the heart of one of the world’s oldest independent democracies.
A worrying new extremism is on the rise. For the poster â¿¿ which bears the slogan “For More Security” â¿¿ is not the work of a fringe neo-Nazi group. It has been conceived â¿¿ and plastered on to billboards, into newspapers and posted to every home in a direct mailshot â¿¿ by the Swiss People’s Party (the Schweizerische Volkspartei or SVP) which has the largest number of seats in the Swiss parliament and is a member of the country’s coalition government.
With a general election due next month, it has launched a twofold campaign which has caused the UN’s special rapporteur on racism to ask for an official explanation from the government. The party has launched a campaign to raise the 100,000 signatures necessary to force a referendum to reintroduce into the penal code a measure to allow judges to deport foreigners who commit serious crimes once they have served their jail sentence.
But far more dramatically, it has announced its intention to lay before parliament a law allowing the entire family of a criminal under the age of 18 to be deported as soon as sentence is passed.
It will be the first such law in Europe since the Nazi practice of Sippenhaft â¿¿ kin liability â¿¿ whereby relatives of criminals were held responsible for their crimes and punished equally.
The proposal will be a test case not just for Switzerland but for the whole of Europe, where a division between liberal multiculturalism and a conservative isolationism is opening up in political discourse in many countries, the UK included.
SWISS TRAINS being the acme of punctuality, the appointment was very precise. I was to meet Dr Ulrich SchlÃ¼er â¿¿ one of the men behind the draconian proposal â¿¿ in the restaurant at the main railway station in ZÃ¼rich at 7.10pm. As I made my way through the concourse, I wondered what Dr SchlÃ¼er made of this station of hyper-efficiency and cleanliness that has a smiling Somali girl selling pickled herring sandwiches, a north African man sweeping the floor, and a black nanny speaking in broken English to her young Swiss charge. The Swiss People’s Party’s attitude to foreigners is, shall we say, ambivalent.
A quarter of Switzerland’s workers â¿¿ one in four, like the black sheep in the poster â¿¿ are now foreign immigrants to this peaceful, prosperous and stable economy with low unemployment and a per capita GDP larger than that of other Western economies. ZÃ¼rich has, for the past two years, been named as the city with the best quality of life in the world.
What did the nanny think of the sheep poster, I asked her. “I’m a guest in this country,” she replied. “It’s best I don’t say.”
Dr SchlÃ¼er is a small affable man. But if he speaks softly he wields a big stick. The statistics are clear, he said, foreigners are four times more likely to commit crimes than Swiss nationals. “In a suburb of ZÃ¼rich, a group of youths between 14 and 18 recently raped a 13-year-old girl,” he said. “It turned out that all of them were already under investigation for some previous offence. They were all foreigners from the Balkans or Turkey. Their parents said these boys are out of control. We say: ‘That’s not acceptable. It’s your job to control them and if you can’t do that you’ll have to leave’. It’s a punishment everyone understands.”
It is far from the party’s only controversial idea. Dr SchlÃ¼er has launched a campaign for a referendum to ban the building of Muslim minarets. In 2004, the party successfully campaigned for tighter immigration laws using the image of black hands reaching into a pot filled with Swiss passports. And its leading figure, the Justice Minister, Christoph Blocher, has said he wants to soften anti-racism laws because they prevent freedom of speech.
Political opponents say it is all posturing ahead of next month’s general election. Though deportation has been dropped from the penal code, it is still in force in administrative law, says Daniel Jositsch, professor of penal law at Zurich University. “At the end of the day, nothing has changed, the criminal is still at the airport and on the plane.”
With astute tactics, the SVP referendum restricts itself to symbolic restitution. Its plan to deport entire families has been put forward in parliament where it has little chance of being passed. Still the publicity dividend is the same. And it is all so worrying to human rights campaigners that the UN special rapporteur on racism, Doudou DiÃ¨ne, warned earlier this year that a “racist and xenophobic dynamic” which used to be the province of the far right is now becoming a regular part of the democratic system in Switzerland.
Dr SchlÃ¼er shrugged. “He’s from Senegal where they have a lot of problems of their own which need to be solved. I don’t know why he comes here instead of getting on with that.”
Such remarks only confirm the opinions of his opponents. Mario Fehr is a Social Democrat MP for the ZÃ¼rich area. He says: “Deporting people who have committed no crime is not just unjust and inhumane, it’s stupid. Three quarters of the Swiss people think that foreigners who work here are helping the economy. We have a lot of qualified workers â¿¿ IT specialists, doctors, dentists.” To get rid of foreigners, which opponents suspect is the SVP’s real agenda, “would be an economic disaster”.
Dr SchlÃ¼er insists the SVP is not against all foreigners. “Until war broke out in the Balkans, we had some good workers who came from Yugoslavia. But after the fighting there was huge influx of people we had a lot of problems with. The abuse of social security is a key problem. It’s estimated to cost Â£750m a year. More than 50 per cent of it is by foreigners.”
There is no disguising his suspicion of Islam. He has alarmed many of Switzerland’s Muslims (some 4.3 per cent of the 7.5 million population) with his campaign to ban the minaret. “We’re not against mosques but the minaret is not mentioned in the Koran or other important Islamic texts. It just symbolises a place where Islamic law is established.” And Islamic law, he says, is incompatible with Switzerland’s legal system.
To date there are only two mosques in the country with minarets but planners are turning down applications for more, after opinion polls showed almost half the population favours a ban. What is at stake here in Switzerland is not merely a dislike of foreigners or a distrust of Islam but something far more fundamental. It is a clash that goes to the heart of an identity crisis which is there throughout Europe and the US. It is about how we live in a world that has changed radically since the end of the Cold War with the growth of a globalised economy, increased immigration flows, the rise of Islam as an international force and the terrorism of 9/11. Switzerland only illustrates it more graphically than elsewhere.
Switzerland is so stark an example because of the complex web of influences that find their expression in Ulrich SchlÃ¼er and his party colleagues.
He is fiercely proud of his nation’s independence, which can be traced back to a defensive alliance of cantons in 1291. He is a staunch defender of its policy of armed neutrality, under which Switzerland has no standing army but all young men are trained and on standby; they call it the porcupine approach â¿¿ with millions of individuals ready to stiffen like spines if the nation is threatened.
Linked to that is its system of direct democracy where many key decisions on tax, education, health and other key areas are taken at local level.
“How direct democracy functions is a very sensitive issue in Switzerland,” he says, explaining why he has long opposed joining the EU. “To the average German, the transfer of power from Berlin to Brussels didn’t really affect their daily lives. The transfer of power from the commune to Brussels would seriously change things for the ordinary Swiss citizen.”
Switzerland has the toughest naturalisation rules in Europe. To apply, you must live in the country legally for at least 12 years, pay taxes, and have no criminal record. The application can still be turned down by your local commune which meets to ask “Can you speak German? Do you work? Are you integrated with Swiss people?”
It can also ask, as one commune did of 23-year-old Fatma Karademir â¿¿ who was born in Switzerland but who under Swiss law is Turkish like her parents â¿¿ if she knew the words of the Swiss national anthem, if she could imagine marrying a Swiss boy and who she would support if the Swiss football team played Turkey. “Those kinds of questions are outside the law,” says Mario Fehr. “But in some more remote villages you have a problem if you’re from ex-Yugoslavia.”
The federal government in Berne wants to take the decision out of the hands of local communities, one of which only gave the vote to women as recently as 1990. But the government’s proposals have twice been defeated in referendums.
The big unspoken fact here is how a citizen is to be defined. “When a Swiss woman who has emigrated to Canada has a baby, that child automatically gets citizenship,” Dr SchlÃ¼er says. But in what sense is a boy born in Canada, who may be brought up with an entirely different world view and set of values, more Swiss than someone like Fatma Karademir who has never lived anywhere but Switzerland?
The truth is that at the heart of the Swiss People’s Party’s vision is a visceral notion of kinship, breeding and blood that liberals would like to think sits very much at odds with the received wisdom of most of the Western world. It is what lies behind the SVP’s fear of even moderate Islam. It has warned that because of their higher birth rates Muslims would eventually become a majority in Switzerland if the citizenship rules were eased. It is what lies behind his fierce support for the militia system.
To those who say that Germany, France, Italy and Austria are nowadays unlikely to invade, he invokes again the shadow of militant Islam. “The character of war is changing. There could be riots or eruptions in a town anywhere in Switzerland. There could be terrorism in a financial centre.”
The race issue goes wider than politics in a tiny nation. "I’m broadly optimistic that the tide is moving in our direction both here and in other countries across Europe, said Dr SchlÃ¼er. “I feel more supported than criticised from outside.”
The drama which is being played out in such direct politically incorrect language in Switzerland is one which has repercussions all across Europe, and wider.
Neutrality and nationality
Switzerland has four national languages â¿¿ German, Italian, French and Romansh. Most Swiss residents speak German as their first language.
Switzerland’s population has grown from 1.7 million in 1815 to 7.5 million in 2006. The population has risen by 750,000 since 1990.
Swiss nationality law demands that candidates for Swiss naturalisation spend a minimum of years of permanent, legal residence in Switzerland, and gain fluency in one of the national languages.
More than 20 per cent of the Swiss population, and 25 per cent of its workforce, is non-naturalised.
At the end of 2006, 5,888 people were interned in Swiss prisons. 31 per cent were Swiss citizens â¿¿ 69 per cent were foreigners or asylum-seekers.
The number of unauthorised migrant workers currently employed is estimated at 100,000.