Transplanted. Born British (English, actually) and naturalised German; although my German passport expired nearly ten years ago, I have never revoked that nationality. Domiciled and resident in Switzerland for more than half my lifetime. An alien in a foreign land.
Well, I finally took the decision: I don’t want to be an alien any more and shall apply for Swiss citizenship as soon as I have all the necessary pieces of paper together. High time, as I’ve been here since 1973 and all my immediate family is Swiss. It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
Ah, but Switzerland is different, and among its unique features is the bottom-up nature of its political structures. A pyramid fixed firmly on its feet is stable. Make that bottom layer weightier than the upper tiers and its stability is increased even more. The Swiss Confederation has very solid feet.
Oh yes, we have a Federal Council with a President of the Confederation at the top of the pyramid, but the president is not the head of state. He or she is simply “primus inter pares” or first among equals. The Canton is sovereign (subject only to the Constitution), and within it the Commune has a certain amount of autonomy. Consequently, those in charge are not faceless power-wielders but flesh-and-blood individuals, often known personally to the man in the street (or the farmer in his fields).
We pay the largest share of our taxes (on income and assets) to the commune and canton, and only a fraction of that amount to the Confederation. We have direct democracy. Responsible citizens are called regularly to vote on all kinds of matters in the commune and canton, not only in national referendums. I quote from a 2012 speech by the Federal Chancellor about what it means to be Swiss:
“People are first and foremost citizens of a commune or canton and on that basis enjoy Swiss citizenship.”
In practical terms that means that a foreigner seeking a Swiss passport must initially apply to become a citizen of the commune or town where he or she is living. Not at national level or even at cantonal level: you first have to be found worthy by those you meet on a daily basis, your neighbours and local authority. Have you lived in the Canton the requisite number of years, and at least five of those in your commune? Are you familiar with Swiss customs and institutions? Are you an integrated, solid, respectable, law-abiding person who will be a credit to your community? Are you involved in local activities?
Until fairly recently, your fate was decided by popular vote. Your CV and qualifications with references were circulated, and the villagers or parishioners said yea or nay. To me, this seemed akin to standing naked on the village green with your dirty linen exposed to the curiosity of all the neighbours. Yes, I fulfilled all the requirements but I wasn’t prepared to be humiliated in this way.
Then the system was revised and the decision is now taken by a specially appointed committee. You are still exposed to public view, but to a lesser extent. If you have been following this blog, you will know that I spent several years back in the UK looking after my mother, so my stay in Switzerland was interrupted. However, I am now assured that I do meet all the conditions and should hand in my application. It will cost about two and a half thousand francs. Complete all the formalities and attend an interview, then I’ll be granted citizenship of my Commune. That will entitle me to claim citizenship of the Canton, which in turn will qualify me for Swiss nationality and a bright red passport.
Great, I thought as I collected the application form from the town hall and started to complete it. As usual, there was only enough space on each line to write half of the information required, so I added a sheet with everything typed out neatly and a 2-page CV. Three referees – no problem! I was amazed to find people falling over themselves to give me a reference, including my bank manager, several friends and neighbours as well as the people I actually asked.
What documents are required? Passport – yes (I have two, one of which has expired, but hopefully that won’t be a problem. I have documentary proof of my German citizenship in addition to the passport.) Residence permit – yes. Photocopies will do. Recent passport photo – yes.
Then a few things that I had to apply for and pay a fee for, starting with an official attestation of residence with dates from each of the places I have lived in since my arrival in Switzerland (the charge varies from commune to commune and I paid CHF 10.-, 21.- and 25.- respectively). Praise be for Swiss bureaucracy: these appeared by return of post, though the people in Geneva had to scrabble around a bit to find me in their 1970’s archives.
Off to the post office next, to pay CHF 20.- for an excerpt from the criminal register stating that I have no criminal record. That arrived – by post, naturally! – a couple of days later.
A handwritten application stating why I want to become Swiss. That took some thought, but I managed to produce a little essay that I hope isn’t too long and is legible. Illegible handwriting will be refused. Why handwritten, in this day and age? Do they want to be certain I’m literate, or is there also a graphology test? My handwriting isn’t always as neat as it once was so I also typed it into my laptop and printed it out, just to be sure.
The next one looked simple enough: an attestation of my registered personal status. I trotted off to the town hall again and was informed that they didn’t deal with that, it was issued by a central office in a nearby town. I e-mailed the office in question, and received a list of documents to produce. This time, they wanted originals. Passport, Residence Permit, Divorce Decree, and Birth Certificate. Yes, I have all these. I’ll come by tomorrow and bring them. Things are coming together nicely, and I’m smiling.
Ah, but look – here it says “Birth certificate (original) not older than 6 months”. I inquired. I have my original birth certificate, issued at my birth, handwritten, with a King George VI postage stamp affixed to prove its authenticity. No, that won’t do. I have to get a new certificate from HM records office in England, less than 6 months old. Why? Don’t ask. It costs me £14 to order and will be despatched in 3 weeks from receipt of request. So everything is put on hold for a while.
What else? Oh yes, I have to attend courses on Swiss institutions and customs, held on five consecutive Saturday mornings in a nearby town, and pass a test at the end as well as a test showing my proficiency in German. I send off the postcard to enrol for this, and receive a phone call a few days later. I explain the delay in obtaining my birth certificate (original copy) and the nice lady at the other end tells me that in that case, I’ll have to take the course sometime later this year, in summer or autumn. My friend who has been through the process advises me that the whole process took two years in her case. Don’t do the course on institutions until just before the interview or you’ll have forgotten everything! Especially Swiss politics!
Why do I want to become Swiss? Well, after 46 years as an alien I think it’s high time I went native. I hope I live long enough!