The possible introduction of English as additional language of the Swiss expatriate community was one of the highlights at the spring assembly of the Council of the Swiss Abroad in Bern on Saturday, 25 March.
The Council voted against a proposal by a delegate from Canada, but the issue is unlikely to go away. He argued that the younger generation of Swiss expatriates could be encouraged to take an active interest in the home country of their ancestors if documents and discussions of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) and the 140-member Council, were translated into English.
“We have to go with the times and prepare for the future,” he said. “Sooner or later we will use English in Council meetings,” he is convinced. That opinion was supported by several other delegates, notably from Canada, the United States and Malta. They warned that the language could become an insurmountable barrier for second- or third-generation Swiss expats who do not speak any of the official OSA languages, German and French.
Opponents argued that the OSA would send the wrong signal, if English were given a higher status than for instance Italian. They said it was important for the cohesion of the country as well as the Swiss Abroad community to continue to insist on the use of an official Swiss language. “We should not choose the easy way out,” as a delegate commented. Others said the biggest Swiss expat communities were living in neighbouring France and Germany making the introduction of English not a priority.
“If you want to participate in votes and elections in Switzerland you have to be able to read and understand a national language,” said a delegate from France.
For his part, OSA President Remo Gysin admitted he was torn between the two sides. He said it was crucial to involve the young generation. In consultative vote, 42 delegates threw out the proposal, 14 came out in favour and eight abstained.
Once again, the policy of Swiss banks towards Swiss expatriates featured on the agenda of the Council. Delegates rejected a resolution to sue the state-run PostFinance company for charging Swiss expat account holders “excessive” fees and for refusing to issue credit cards. The proponent, a delegate from Hungary, argued the Swiss abroad were treated like “second class Swiss citizens” by PostFinance.
However, a majority of the delegates, in line with the Council Committee and a legal expert, opted for a political solution. They called on the OSA to make its voice heard in parliament, launching a bid for legal changes. “It is crucial for many Swiss who leave the country to live abroad temporarily to maintain a bank account in Switzerland,” the OSA said in a statement.
Public service media
In a key-note address to the assembly, the director general of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, Gilles Marchand, stressed the common interests of the public service media and the Swiss Abroad community. He said both were in an ideal position to explain to world what makes Switzerland tick. Marchand gave a short overview of the international media offer, including swissinfo.ch as well as television channels and a public archive.
He also pointed out the importance of access to information about Switzerland for the expat community in the world, to enable them to take part in the country’s system of direct democracy with its regular votes and elections.
In another development, the council continued debating a reform of its voting system, aimed at making it more democratic and broadening the electorate. It called on a working group to refine its proposals in the wake of trials with e-voting in Australia and Mexico.
Discussions are expected to continue in August when the council meets ahead of this year’s Congress of the Swiss Abroad in Basel on 18 August.
Additional comments by Beat Knoblauch, having attended the meeting
The financial Statements of the OSA for 2016 were approved as well as the budget for 2017. It was noted that for 2017 a small deficit is forecast. The tight financial situation does not allow for any unforeseen larger expenditure and it was noted that the contribution /subsidy from the Federal Government has remained constant for a number of years now. The OSA has to find additional funding to expand their services and programs. Again, a travelling cost contribution from the OSA to the participating Delegates had to be shelved for lack of funds.
An interesting presentation was delivered by Ambassador Henri Gétaz, responsible at FDFA for European Affairs: Brexit should not have a significant impact on trade relations Switzerland/UK and he mentioned that 46% of the External Trade Switzerland has with the EU is with the directly neighbouring Bundesländer, like Bavaria, Baden-Würtemberg, French Departements and Italian Lombardy. Therefore the initiative against mass migration will have an impact as about 60% of the Swiss Abroad live in EU countries.