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Meeting of the Council of the Swiss Abroad: The old issues, debated with renewed vigour

Edited translation of a German SwissInfo report by Roland Isler | Original German version here

Katja Wallimann Gates, Beat Knoblauch and Carmen Trochsler in Lugano.

The ‘Parliament of the Swiss Abroad’ met in Lugano on Friday 19 August, ahead of the Congress of the Swiss Abroad that took place that weekend.

After a three-year break, more than 85 of the 129 members of the Council of the Swiss Abroad (CSA) travelled from all over the world to Lugano for Friday’s meeting. Australian delegates Katja Wallimann Gates, Beat Knoblauch and Carmen Trochsler (pictured above) were among the attendees. Carmen took her seat at the table of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad Executive for the first time in a face-to-face CSA meeting.

On the agenda were long-running issues, i.e., topics that the Swiss Abroad have been dealing with for a long time: e-voting, cooperation with the foreign department, the EU question and the problem of health insurance for Swiss living abroad.

Big reunion

The discussions were livelier than they had been for a long time because they were simply not possible virtually. There was a general joy of reunion – many council members have known each other for decades – and a spirit of optimism, thanks to some new delegates that have since joined the council.

For an electronic identity

After a first attempt to set up an electronic identity (e-ID) failed at the polls in March 2021, a consultation process for a second attempt is now underway. A digital passport is now to be issued by the federal government and not by private individuals, as was originally planned.

OSA President Filippo Lombardi outlined the arguments for an e-ID from the point of view of the Swiss Abroad: This is a prerequisite for e-government services such as taxes, health care and administration. “e-Voting is easier to do with e-ID,” said Lombardi. It could also improve access for the Swiss Abroad to Swiss banks. There were no dissenting votes, no abstentions: it was unanimously accepted for the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) to support this revised initiative.

The state and its diaspora

On behalf of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), the Director of the Consular Directorate, Johannes Matyassy, informed about a gap between the expectations of Swiss people living abroad and the realistic support that the FDFA is able of offer in crisis situations. He named the COVID pandemic, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Ukraine and said: “In all these situations, we always think of the Swiss Abroad as a priority.”

The FDFA has recently expanded communication with the Swiss Abroad and provided it with a clear strategy: one strives for information and prevention. Matyassy presented corresponding projects, such as the ‘Aging Abroad’ awareness-raising campaign, for which a pilot project is planned in Africa. He also referred to the ‘SwissInTouch’ mobile app, which will be used from November to connect the Swiss expatriate community with Switzerland’s consular representations.

A report by the Swiss Federal Audit Office, which had just subjected the Swiss embassies and consulates to an in-depth examination, was also discussed. The examiners attested the FDFA good performance, except for digitisation. “Yes, documents from the Swiss Abroad are piling up,” said Matyassy, “but overall, it’s a good report.”

Various delegates expressed the wish that embassies and consulates should better support the 1st of August celebrations and also ‘Jungbürgerfeier’ that are mainly organised by Swiss Clubs around the world. Matyassy acknowledged that some embassies and consulates are doing a fabulous job while others could do better.

Insisting on e-Voting

The subject of e-voting provoked the most votes among the delegates. It has been at the top of the OSA’s agenda for years, because in the eyes of the ‘Fifth Switzerland’, e-voting is the only guarantee of participation in local democracy. Almost 800,000 Swiss live abroad, almost a quarter of them want to take part in elections and votes.

“We know that we will work out an e-voting solution with Swiss Post,” announced OSA President Lombardi, “and we will insist on it.” However, such a system will unlikely to be ready for the elections scheduled for next year. See also ‘E-voting pilot trails to start from 2023’ on this page.

Health Insurance still a sore point

The Swiss health insurance system also led to renewed discussions. Foreign citizens must give up their Swiss basic insurance when they move abroad. Many then have difficulties in taking out private health insurance or being able to maintain it, especially when old age or previous illnesses become noticeable. One of the delegates pointed out that health care is cheaper abroad and that many – comparable to the AHV – have paid their premiums their whole lives and are still excluded.

Switzerland-EU: The diaspora holds the Federal Council accountable

Finally, a panel discussion with top-ranking Swiss foreign politicians was dedicated to the relationship between Switzerland and the EU. The delegates unanimously passed a new resolution on the EU dossier, with one abstention. In it, they call on the government to work for the full retention of the ‘Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons’ (FZA) to protect the rights of the Swiss living in an EU country and all those who want to settle there in the future.

The OSA has always strongly supported the FZA agreement, which enables Swiss people to settle and work freely in Europe. In recent years, the OSA has countered all attacks – mostly from the ranks of the right-wing conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) – which directly or indirectly attacked the agreement signed in 1999 by Bern and Brussels. A look at the statistics is enough to understand this commitment: of the 788,000 Swiss people who were resident outside of Switzerland at the end of 2021, more than half (57%) lived in a European country. Of these 449,571 people, 25% only had Swiss citizenship and thus benefited directly from the FZA agreement.

In addition, three quarters of Swiss citizens living abroad are between 18 and 65 years old and therefore potential employees. More and more of them leave their country several times in the course of their careers, which means that freedom of movement and freedom of residence within Europe is becoming increasingly important.

Even if it is still difficult to assess all the effects of breaking off negotiations with the European Union, negative consequences are already being felt. The CSA emphasizes that this applies in particular to the areas of research, student mobility or the export of medical products.

A complete breach of the first package of bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU, which contains the text on the free movement of people, is not the most likely scenario today, said former ambassador Alexis Lautenberg, who was invited to a panel discussion in which federal parliamentarians of the most important parties in the country took part. “I can't imagine that this is in the interest of the EU,” he tried to reassure the delegates present in Lugano.

Next meetings

The next meeting of the CSA will take place virtually on 5 November. A hybrid meeting is scheduled for 17 March 2023 in Bern. The next Congress of the Swiss Abroad will take place in St. Gallen from 18 to 20 August 2023 and will have Swiss culture as its topic.



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