BRUSSELS — As policymakers scratch their heads and wonder how best to absorb different cultures and religions into Europe’s very distinct national societies, they could do worse than consider some new ideas being developed in Switzerland.
Switzerland? The country that recently voted to ban the construction of minarets on mosques? Absolutely.
It is time for Europe to adjust the way it thinks about nationality, cultural roots and how it deals with immigrants. In a world of increasing mobility, an aging Europe will badly need the immigrants of whom it is so frightened, and it should give them a voice in local politics soon — say, one year — after they arrive.
After all, it is more important for taxpayers to participate in local politics than to sit on the sidelines waiting to be given the rights of native citizens. Democratic participation is the best way to integrate people into society and make them feel that their opinions count, regardless of whether they have formal citizenship and thus the right to vote.
I should declare a personal interest here: I was stateless for a time after my birth in Geneva. My father was American, but naturalized too recently to hand his U.S. citizenship on to me. I was born on Swiss soil, but that did not give me the right to a Swiss passport. In the end, the Irish accepted me because that was my mother’s nationality. I have a framed copy of the Act of Parliament by Dail Eireann that was needed.
I have lived in Europe all my life, mostly in Belgium, but never in Ireland, and I have never voted, despite the fact that the Maastricht Treaty entitles me to vote both in European elections and in Belgium’s local elections. I suppose I belong to an expat generation that has not been educated to consider voting an essential right, if not a duty, and I regret that. But voting in Belgium is compulsory, so once you have started, there is no jumping ship without a fine or a good excuse.
Foreign voter participation is clearly bound to work best at a local level, where the issues are more concrete. That is where Switzerland demonstrates that giving foreigners a voice is good policy, one that also means teaching citizens to understand the benefits of open democracy. The canton of Neuchatel (one of the 26 mini-states that comprise the Swiss confederation) lies alongside the French border. Its official language is French, it has its own constitution and has created a highly efficient Multicultural Cohesion Service.
The Council of Europe, which for 60 years has promoted European integration through human rights and culture, includes Neuchatel among 10 “intercultural” cities that it is studying for “best practice” policies and governance in multicultural societies.
In the case of Neuchatel, this includes the canton as well as the picturesque lakeside city. Unemployment is relatively low, despite hard times for its major industry — watch-making — and foreigners represent one-quarter of its 170,000 residents.
Much of Neuchatel’s progressive attitude toward foreign residents is attributable to one man, Thomas Facchinetti, who started a multicultural cohesion service 20 years ago and has steadily built it up. Among his achievements is a Citizens’ Charter that is handed to every new resident to explain Swiss participatory democracy and lay out its rules. His offices also have an anti-racism service, offer well publicized access to inexpensive French classes, and distribute booklets on topics like forced marriages and headscarves.
The fact that Facchinetti himself is the linchpin of the canton’s open-minded views may be seen as a weakness, but it is also its strength. Tolerance has a face — the neat smiling figure of this son of Italian immigrants, who is easily accessible to the canton’s citizens. Partly as a result of his efforts, Neuchatel was one of the four cantons in Switzerland to vote against the ban on new minarets.
If people are to feel committed to the place where they live, they must be allowed to influence decision-making, and that influence should not depend on nationality. In Neuchatel, many naturalized citizens, including elected local councilors, retain their foreign passports for several reasons: among European Union passport-holders, doing so allows their children to study in the EU or to work there themselves. Among non-EU citizens, it allows them to re-settle in their parents’ or grandparents’ country if they so desire.
No two countries, regions or cities are the same. Geography, budgets, political systems, and the number and nature of its immigrants differ. But where Neuchatel could serve as a model is in its hands-on attitude to helping foreigners fit in by making it easy for people to learn the local language, opening the voting booths to all, and encouraging foreigners to represent their country’s communities.
Brigid Grauman, a former magazine editor, is working on a book about the Roma. © 2010 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)
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