Some people are born into it, others covet it: Swiss citizenship. So how does a person who was born without the bright red passport with the white cross on it become a Swiss citizen? The process, like many other official things in Switzerland, is complicated. Switzerland has a VERY long history of democracy. In fact, it is one of the oldest democracies in the world. It was founded in 1291, the result of a successful rebellion against the House of Habsburg. Landsgemeinden, the most direct form of democracy, where the people of a town or canton gather to vote on issues or candidates, are first documented in 1403. What does this have to do with Swiss citizenship you ask? In fact, it has everything to do with it because the Swiss like to do things their own way. Each country has its own requirements and processes for naturalization, but, usually, when a person wants to become a citizen of another country, he or she applies for citizenship to that country. In Switzerland, however, foreign nationals must become citizens of a town and its appropriate canton first in order to become citizens of the country as a whole. And that’s where the whole direct democracy concept comes in. Although requirements and procedures vary by town and/or canton, the general principle is that a foreign national who wants to become a Swiss citizen must apply to the town that he or she lives in because every Swiss citizen has to have a Heimatort (a municipality of citizenship). Natural-born Swiss citizens normally inherit their Heimatort from their father. It has nothing to do with their place of birth. They may not ever live in this particular town, but until quite recently the Heimatort was responsible for its citizens if they fell on hard times. Nowadays, this social responsibility falls to the place of residence, but every citizen still has to have a Heimatort. As a result, a person who wants to become a Swiss citizen must first apply to become a citizen of the town where he or she lives, and the municipality gets to yay or nay the application. Each town sets its own standards, which in turn have to meet basic national requirements. There are costs involved, for sure—this is, after all Switzerland we’re talking about—and there are requirements as to how long a person must have lived in that town or canton. The applicant must also prove that he or she can speak the language, is financially secure, and has knowledge of the geography and history of Switzerland. These conditions generally must be met in other countries as well to obtain citizenship. But here comes the Swiss twist: the people who live in the town and/or canton where the person has applied for citizenship actually have a say in whether or not citizenship is granted. Before 2003, this was often accomplished by direct anonymous vote. An application was, in essence, voted on by all eligible voters in a town. As a result, applicants from countries that were perceived positively were often granted naturalization, while applications of nationals from negatively perceived countries were denied. In 2003, the Swiss Supreme Court ruled that this process violated the Swiss constitution. Since then, input from the citizens of the municipality or canton is less direct, but still present. Citizenship applications are usually decided by a town or canton commission made up of citizens from that municipality or canton. And their approval is by no means a sure thing. In October of 2014, for example, the naturalization commission of the town of Einsiedeln rejected the application of a 75-year-old former professor at the Swiss Polytechnical University who had lived in Einsiedeln for 39 years. Even though the man spoke German, was financially secure, and passed his written test about Switzerland in general, his application was denied because the commission felt that he did not know enough about his local community.
Very obviously, the Swiss are very selective when it comes to granting citizenship to foreign nationals. In 1978, the movie “Die Schweizermacher” (The Swiss Makers) was humorously taking aim at some of the perceptions Swiss people had about foreigners. In the last 15 years, however, Switzerland has been repeatedly under serious fire for its anti-foreigner referendums and attitudes. The country has a very high standard of living and is therefore a popular move-to destination for many people from less affluent or politically unstable countries. The supposedly anti-foreigner sentiment of the Swiss notwithstanding, Switzerland has a very high percentage of foreigners living in the country: 22.8 percent, compared to Germany’s 9.1 percent, and the EU average of 6.8 percent. For reference, the percentage of legal permanent residents in the United States was about 4.2 percent in 2011, with estimates of the total percentage of foreigners ranging up to 7 percent. So Switzerland has about three times as many foreigners, proportionally speaking, as the United States or the European Union average. That kind of puts the whole “anti-foreigner” perception a little bit in perspective. The Swiss are actually in desperate need of some of these foreigners to perform vital jobs, particularly in the healthcare field, and they know it. In my personal, extensive experience, the Swiss are not prejudiced against people who contribute to Swiss society by being gainfully employed, learning the language, and adapting to their new home. But when it comes to handing out Swiss passports, they want to make absolutely sure that applicants really want to be a part of Swiss society and culture, with all of its privileges and obligations. A Swiss passport, to them, is not just a piece of paper, but a guarantee, of sorts, that the person who holds it incorporates all the positive characteristics of a Swiss person: law-abiding, productive, upstanding, and honest. Now if they could only get every natural-born Swiss citizen to live up to those standards . . .