“Was ist Heimat?” – Swiss voters to decide on less onerous rules for naturalisation of third generation immigrants

by Dr. Rekha Oleschak is senior research fellow at the Institute of Federalism, Switzerland.

For people from countries like Canada and USA which apply the rules of ius soli (citizenship by place of birth) naturalisation of third generation immigrants might sound like something unbelievable. Yet, countries where citizenship is based on ius sanguini rules (citizenship by descent) are in the majority. Switzerland (along with almost all other European countries) have rules based on citizenship by descent, whereby a new born acquires the citizenship of the country of citizenship of either or both of the parents. The rules can also be gender discriminatory: until the 1980s, children born of Swiss mothers and foreign fathers were denied automatic citizenship, while those children born of Swiss fathers and foreign mothers did get citizenship automatically.

On February 12, Swiss citizens go to the urns to decide among other issues, also on whether rules for naturalisation of third generation immigrants should be eased. Far from automatic citizenship, the proposed rules (Amendments to the Federal Law on Citizenship and Naturalisation, adopted by the Federal Parliament on 30. September 2016) make it easier for qualifying individuals to apply for the red passport.

If Parliament has enacted the law, what are the people voting upon? In Switzerland, direct democratic institutions include such referendum, when there is a change in the federal constitution. Currently, the federal level legislates on facilitated citizenship based on marriage or adoption, all other naturalisation powers are with the cantons. The harmonisation of rules on citizenship of a certain category (third generation immigrants) requires an amendment to the federal constitution, which is subject to a compulsory referendum.

Let us take a look at the proposed rules: to qualify a person must have been born in Switzerland, between nine and 25 years of age, hold a permanent residence permit and have attended at least five years of compulsory schooling in Switzerland. Further, parents also must have lived in Switzerland for at least ten years, and have had five years of Swiss schooling, and hold a valid residence permit. Finally, one grandparent has to be Swiss or have a residence card. Additionally, as with all naturalisation procedures, they have to be integrated, respect the law and values of the Swiss constitution, speak at least one of the four national languages, and have no debts (including social security transfers). The burden of proof of “integration” which is the most difficult (in addition to the minimum requirement of 10 years of residence in the country) would be turned, i.e. on refusal, it would be on the state to show that the person is not well-integrated.

Given the strong federal nature of the country, seven cantons actually already have similar provisions for eased naturalisation. A constitutional amendment at the federal level would harmonise requirements across the 26 cantons. According to a study by Prof. Philippe Wanner, University of Geneva, currently there would an estimated 24,650 eligible candidates. It is important that a large group of young people have the right to vote in the country they were born, continue to live and most probably will live for the rest of their lives. Political participation is important in every society, but especially in one with a strong direct democracy. From decisions about schools and hospitals to fundamental values in the constitution, citizenship is the way to political participation. It is unfortunate that Switzerland features at the bottom of the list on the Immigrant Inclusion Index, a research project carried out at the University of Lucerne.

While all political parties support the proposed rules, the Swiss Peoples Party (right wing conservatives) do not. They consider that the “Swiss passport must be earned”. On the other hand, proponents like Ada Marra, the Social Democrat who initiated the proposal these rules “are far from being revolutionary”.

The debates in the media have been polarising and we have seen some outright racist statements such as “now it is the Italians, later it will be the Africans”. One can only hope that Swiss citizens voting are guided by the values of equality and non-discrimination of the constitution than polemic speeches.

Switzerland will still continue to have one of the most onerous naturalisation requirements in Europe.


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