Welcome to Switzerland

Welcome to Switzerland

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Writer and expat Chantal Panozzo introduces you to Switzerland, the tiny home of wealth, democracy, and traditional views.

The cars actually stop at pedestrian crosswalks. The lakes are so clean you can swim in them. The dogs on the trains somehow smell nice. Welcome to Schweiz/Suisse/Svizzera/Switzerland. Whatever you call it, the country known for its cheese, chocolate, and time-telling ability is an appealing place to live. So pleasant, in fact, that the 2010 Mercer Worldwide Quality of Living Survey placed three Swiss cities (Zurich, Geneva, and Bern) among the world’s top 10.

The Swiss are rich.
Despite being landlocked, having no natural resources, and refusing to join any kind of organisation (like the EU) to better their trade relations, Switzerland ranks in the top seven per capita incomes in the world. A Big Mac in Switzerland costs more than almost any other on earth, and yet the average person working in Zurich can afford it after only 15 minutes of work.

Some Swiss will talk about going to the “big city” but don’t let that fool you. The biggest city in Switzerland is Zurich (population 380,000) and to most foreigners it seems more like a village than a metropolis. Each Swiss “city” is small, diverse, and speaks its own dialect based on one of the four official languages (German, French, Italian, or Romansh), all of which end up saying the same thing: our city is the best. Each Swiss citizen claims his/her hometown is superior, with the result being that not many Swiss people move—especially across something as precarious as a “Roestigraben” or “fried potato ditch” (the imaginary divide between the French- and German-speaking Swiss).

Fontana dorata (Golden fountain) © Alfo23
Switzerland,Giubiasco: Fontana dorata (Golden fountain)

Switzerland is small. With a 2010 population of 7.86 million and a low birth rate (1.5 children per woman), its population growth comes mainly from migration. Switzerland has one of the highest proportions of foreigners in Europe, with 22 percent of the population coming from elsewhere, hoping to get their share of the good life (and the good pay). In canton Geneva, 39.7 percent of the population is foreign.

Despite Switzerland’s strict immigration policies, the Swiss population has doubled in the last century, mainly due to migration. Because of Switzerland’s economic success after World War II, it became a desirable place for many Europeans to live. In the 1970s thousands of Italians and Spanish came to Switzerland in search of employment or jobs with better pay. Today the largest foreigner groups are the Italians and Germans (who, from 2007 to 2008 alone, increased in number by 20 percent) followed closely by the Portuguese.

In 2002, Switzerland agreed to a seven-year bilateral labour accord with the EU, despite continual refusal to actually join the EU. This agreement granted Switzerland and the EU access to each other’s labour markets and has led to a huge influx of foreigners living in Switzerland. In February 2009, the agreement was up for renewal and sparked huge debates across Swiss party lines, with some people upset over incoming foreigners, particularly Germans, taking top managerial work as opposed to the lower-paying jobs previously associated with immigrants. However, in the end, over 56 percent voted to extend the free movement of people with the EU, claiming that the Swiss economy depended on foreign workers.

Switzerland takes democracy to the extreme.
The tiny country is composed of 26 cantons or states, each of which has their own laws, education system, and tax rates. Just about anything and everything is voted on by Swiss citizens—from smoking laws to whether Frau S should be allowed to do construction on her house. The political system is so democratic that there is no head of state but rather a ceremonial position of president, which rotates annually among the executive branch, the Federal Council. The Federal Council is one of three Swiss federal institutions, which also include the legislative branch, the Federal Assembly—which is made up of no less than thirteen political parties (the most notorious of which is the SVP)—and the judicial branch, the Federal Tribunal.

The minaret of Geneva mosque in the neighbourhood of Le Petit-Saconnex is reflected in a mirror on 24 November, 2009 in Geneva

The SVP (Swiss People’s Party) is a conservative party most known for their posters, all of which aim to persuade voters to keep foreigners -- and their religions and customs -- out of Switzerland. One poster from 2009 depicted a burqa-clad woman in front of a group of missile-shaped minarets rising out of a Swiss flag. It was meant to highlight the SVPs support for a law banning the building of minarets on mosques. Several towns outlawed the posters in public spaces, saying that they inspired hatred and violated the country's antiracism law. Still, many cities, like Geneva and Zurich, allowed the posters to run. And in November of 2009, the Swiss people voted in favor of the proposal.

Despite widespread xenophobia among Swiss citizens, foreigners continue to arrive and remain in Switzerland in large numbers. Despite the recent recession, Switzerland has emerged stronger than many of its European counterparts, with the Swiss Franc continuing its gain on the Euro into 2011. Thanks to the traditionally robust Swiss economy,  linguistically talented residents (about one-third of Swiss people speak English), location in the heart of Europe, and high quality of life, Switzerland will continue to be a magnet for foreigners well into the future.

Text by Chantal Panozzo / Writer Abroad
Photo credit: Alfo23; AFP

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