Switzerland'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
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 - which bears
the slogan "For More Security" - is not the work of a fringe neo-Nazi
group. It has been conceived - and plastered on to billboards, into
newspapers and posted to every home in a direct mailshot - 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 - kin liability - 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 Schor - one of the men behind the
draconian proposal - in the restaurant at the main railway station in
Zurich at 7.10pm. As I made my way through the concourse, I wondered
what Dr Schor 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 - one in four, like the black sheep
in the poster - 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. Zurich 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 Schor 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 Zurich, 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 Schor 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
Di, 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 Schor 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 Zurich 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
- IT specialists, doctors, dentists." To get rid of foreigners, which
opponents suspect is the SVP's real agenda, "would be an economic
Dr Schor 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 F50m 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 Schor and his party
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 - 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
"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 -
who was born in Switzerland but who under Swiss law is Turkish like
her parents - 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 Schor 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
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 Schor. "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 - 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 - 69 per cent were foreigners or asylum-
* The number of unauthorised migrant workers currently employed is
estimated at 100,000.
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