Identity Crisis For The Swiss

Written by Andrew Marshall

Posted on 9 November 2009

Identity Crisis For The Swiss

Read the story in TIME magazine

What does it mean to be authentically Swiss? These days the country isn’t so sure.

By Andrew Marshall

If my son were a watch, he might not be Swiss. No, that is not the caption to a Surrealist painting. Let me explain.

My son is Anglo-Swiss, born to a Swiss woman and her British husband (me), and holds passports to both countries. In other words, he is 50% Swiss, and that makes him all Swiss. A not-dissimilar legal privilege is extended to Swiss watches, which can only claim the celebrated tag “Made in Switzerland” if at least 50% of their production costs are incurred in the country.

But that could soon change, renewing a debate on what Switzerland’s German-language newspapers refer to, in English, as “Swiss-ness.” The government is mulling new laws that will raise the Swiss share of those production costs to 60%. Forty million fake Swiss timepieces are made every year, most of them in China, claims the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. Sales of the real thing are threatened, despite the federation’s slogan: “Fake watches are for fake people. Be authentic. Buy real.”

The new laws will also apply, with various alterations and restrictions, to products such as cheese and chocolate (but not, thankfully, to children). Enforcing them could be problematic, since identifying “Swiss-ness” is sometimes not as easy at it seems. Just ask McDonald’s. Its campaign to assure customers that its ingredients are 100% “aus der Schweiz” took a knock last July when it emerged that the cow used in a poster was in fact Austrian. But then cows aren’t the only Swiss animals having an identity crisis.

Nobody can deny there is something special about Switzerland. Just ask the Swiss. Their sense of exceptionalism is based on being both central to the world and remote from it. The country is situated at the heart of Europe yet is not a member of the European Union. It didn’t join the United Nations until 2002, despite the fact that Geneva has the largest U.N. office outside of New York. It has tough immigration and citizenship laws, but also one of Europe’s highest immigration rates. A fifth of its 7.5 million population are foreigners, mostly from Western Europe, but increasingly from Turkey, the Balkans and beyond.

But as other countries have learned — not least my own, which in June elected two far-right members to the European Parliament — pride and exceptionalism can easily morph into isolationism and xenophobia. The country’s most popular political group is the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP). It won nearly 29% of the vote in the 2007 election with anti-immigration posters showing white sheep kicking black sheep off a flag-clad outline of Switzerland. The SVP is also driving a Nov. 29 referendum to ban the construction of new minarets. Listen to its leaders, and you would assume that the picturesque Swiss landscape now bristles with minarets. There are actually only four in the entire country. The fifth, to be built near the capital, Bern, got planning permission in July.

As the SVP’s popularity shows, Switzerland has yet to make its peace with immigrants, despite how central to the economy they have been and — with a falling birth rate and aging population — are still. Postwar Switzerland was built by Italian “guest workers,” many of whom eventually won the right to settle, and today perhaps a quarter of the nation’s workforce are non-Swiss.

This has not gone entirely unrecognized. On Aug. 1 — Switzerland’s 718th birthday — the Swiss National Museum in Zurich opened a new permanent exhibition to chart a history of immigration since the Bronze Age. In a section called “No One Has Been Here All the Time,” visitors to the museum are reminded that many famous Swiss have foreign blood. Take tennis superstar Roger Federer: his dad was born South African.

Exceptionalism is out of fashion these days. (Well, unless you’re Chinese.) Global recession is a great leveler, its seismic shocks felt in big and small nations alike. Even Switzerland has not escaped the carnage. Its unemployment rate is at its highest for more than 11 years, and those fathomless repositories of Swiss-ness, the banks, are reeling from their exposure to sub-primes and credit markets.

Switzerland’s two biggest banks needed multibillion-dollar bailouts — UBS with public money, Credit Suisse with private — and, like bankers everywhere, they face the rage of ordinary people. In August, a civil action by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service forced UBS to reveal the names of thousands of tax-dodging Americans with bulging Swiss accounts.

My son will likely come of age in a very different Switzerland. One day, he will vote in its elections and do national service in its army. But he will always be half English and — since he was conceived and born in Bangkok — “Made in Thailand,” too. Fake watches might be for fake people. But authentic Swiss are harder to define than ever, and that’s something Switzerland should probably celebrate.

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