Unwelcome Immigrants Bank Data Spat Fuels Anti-German Sentiment in Switzerland
Switzerland is experiencing a wave of anti-German sentiment fed by anger at Berlin's decision to buy a CD containing stolen banking data. Local right-wing politicians are exploiting the opportunity to attack German immigrants who "steal" Swiss jobs.
It looks a little like group therapy, as they sit there on a stage in the auditorium of Zürich's "Kaufleuten" Club: two Germans, three Swiss and a former German who is now a naturalized Swiss citizen (a species referred to in Swiss German as "Papierli-Schwizer," or "Swiss on paper").
They are discussing the question of whether "Zürich is too German." It's a topic that has become even more sensitive than usual in the last few days, as a result of tensions caused by the German government's decision to buy a CD with stolen bank account data in a bid to crack down on German tax evaders who stash their money in secret Swiss accounts.
They are all exquisitely polite to each other, even when they argue, a reflection of the Swiss approach to discourse. The president of the German Club of Zürich, Vanessa Matthiebe, says that anti-German sentiment is currently being "whipped up by the media" and describes the situation as "very tense."
"Germany bashing was never our intention," says Roger Liebi, the chairman of the Zürich branch of the populist right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP). Liebi is the same man who, only a few weeks ago, ran full-page newspaper ads in which he sharply criticized "German sleaze" at the University of Zürich. When he was accused of racism, he ran another ad that read: "Are the Germans a race?"
It takes Liebi a full hour to make his point: The aggressive language currently coming from Germany regarding, among other things, Swiss banking secrecy laws "doesn't exactly make for good relations with the people you encounter in this country." He is referring to Germans living in Switzerland. Then he explains his worldview: A German, he says, is "fundamentally more subservient to authority than a Swiss. A Swiss would never dream of approving this deal being pursued by the German government."
Liebi has a tendency to lump together very different issues. In this case, he manages to establish a link between the German government's pressure on Swiss banking secrecy and the large number of German immigrants in Switzerland. Switzerland's identity is being assaulted, and in both cases Germany is somehow to blame.
It is Thursday evening of last week, the same week in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to pay an informant 2.5 million ($3.5 million) for a CD containing bank data on German tax evaders. The information could net German authorities up to 400 million in back taxes.
Merkel's decision triggered a storm of outrage in the Swiss media and among conservative politicians. This time, the public outcry is even more aggressive than it was a year ago, when then-German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück likened the Swiss to "Indians" and suggested that the cavalry ought to be dispatched to deal with them.
"This is really a huge outrage," said Christoph Blocher, the father figure of the SVP and leader of the right wing in Switzerland. "There are criminals in the German government," he said, "who are in a position to organize acts of theft." Blocher even voiced his concern that Germany was not too far away from the step of "occupying a country."
Politicians in the SVP, as well as those in the middle-class centrist parties, accused the Berlin government of "dealing in stolen goods." The online version of the tabloid newspaper Blick published a photo of the chancellor seemingly raising her hand in a Hitler salute. In Zürich, young liberal politicians put up wanted posters depicting Merkel and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, along with the words, in English: "Wanted for Bank Robbery." Roger Köppel, editor-in-chief of the right-wing weekly magazine Weltwoche, suggested that German cabinet ministers entering Switzerland should be arrested.
But some attacks have been directed against Germans living in Switzerland. A Swiss professor proposed raising tuition fees for German students in response to Berlin's affront. SVP Chairman Toni Brunner insinuated that Switzerland might want to think about what to do with German immigrants.
High Levels of Immigration
For the SVP, the new wave of indignation directed against the German government conveniently coincides with its current campaign against Germans in Switzerland, its favorite subject for the past weeks. In fact, the number of Germans in the country has more than doubled since 2002, to the current level of 250,000, out of a total population of 7.8 million. Three years ago, Germans displaced Italians as the largest immigrant group in the canton of Zürich. Most are well-educated specialists and business executives working in industry, at universities and in the healthcare system. Without these immigrants, it would be extremely difficult to keep Swiss hospitals up and running, for example. But the country's politicians, including members of the SVP and parties on the left, see the high immigration figures as competition for the Swiss middle class.
Cultural and linguistic differences have also been the source of conflict in everyday life. Many German-speaking Swiss view the Germans as "loud, not very sensitive and arrogant," says Julia Morais, the integration official for the canton of Zürich, who also happens to be German. She now organizes "welcome evenings" for her fellow Germans, where they learn, for example, not to shout "Check!" in restaurants, but to politely ask whether it might be possible to pay.
With about 30 percent of the vote, the SVP is Switzerland's largest party. Part of its recipe for success is that it has a knack for seizing upon and amplifying the public mood. This helps to explain why it has now managed to successfully link the two very different issues of German immigration and Swiss banking secrecy.
- Part 1: Bank Data Spat Fuels Anti-German Sentiment in Switzerland
- Part 2: Outrage and Resignation