Alpine Angst Swiss Defend Their Island of Prosperity


Part 2: Problems on Both Sides of the Border

Many Germans see it the same way. The tower of the cathedral in the southwestern German city of Konstanz offers a view of the hinterlands behind Lake Constance. Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel goes there to relax at his 14,000-square meter (3.5-acre) estate just across the border in Switzerland. Former Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich lives nearby.

Quite a few of the other 250,000 Germans registered in Switzerland have settled in the area. Foreigners, most of them Germans, now make up 50.6 percent of the population of Kreuzlingen, the sister city to Konstanz.

Since Switzerland joined the Schengen Area at the end of 2008, freedom of movement has prevailed. Border controls are now limited to sporadic random checks in the hinterlands. A German who crosses the border from Konstanz and walks toward the Hotel Schweizerland in Kreuzlingen is entering a country whose status as an island in a sea of EU countries only exists these days on paper.

On the other hand, the border area between Konstanz and Kreuzlingen also offers a sense of how great the divide between the two worlds once was. For one thing, the remains of the old "Jews fence," topped with barbed wire, which was intended to prevent the uncontrolled passage from Nazi Germany into neutral Switzerland, are still on display there. Georg Elser, a German carpenter who unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Hitler, was captured and arrested shortly before reaching the border fence. A bust inscribed with his words, "I wanted to prevent the war," serves as a reminder of his failed attempt. Elser was murdered at the Dachau concentration camp in 1945.

Gathering Together in the Storm

Today the interactions between the neighbors in Konstanz and Kreuzlingen are characterized by sober-mindedness and materialism. The first Germans cross the border in the morning to their jobs at MOWAG in Kreuzlingen, where they assemble armored personnel carriers and are paid their wages in hard francs. MOWAG's combat vehicles are used in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

A little later in the morning, the Swiss start moving in the opposite direction, heading for drugstores and supermarkets in Konstanz, where prices for skin creams and beef are often as little as a third of those in Kreuzlingen. German consumers waiting in line watch stoically as some of their Swiss neighbors, the thrill of the hunt in their eyes, buy up trunk-loads of cosmetics and other consumer products.

Is it anyone's fault that the crisis in the global financial world has had such a strong impact on this little world on the shores of Lake Constance? Average wages relative to the exchange rate in August were about 70 percent higher on the Swiss side than on the German side of the border. In addition, prices on the German side are about half as high as they are on the Swiss side. "In our town, the retailers are suffering while ordinary citizens are benefiting," says Andreas Netzle, the mayor of Kreuzlingen. "It's the other way around in Konstanz."

The currency crisis has already opened his eyes and those of many others, says Netzle. It has highlighted how greedy people can be, he adds, and how little sympathy some have for those suffering as a result of the financial crisis.

Passers-by in the pedestrian zones agree. "Switzerland as an island of the blessed? Don't make me laugh," says an older man. "If anything, we're an archipelago. But the minute a really bad storm comes along, we gather together -- at the highest point."

Nevertheless, some things have changed in Kreuzlingen, since the Swiss, previously not known for their price sensitivity, have started comparing prices at home and abroad. Wholesalers have adjusted their prices and distributors have reduced their profit expectations, while highly subsidized vegetable farmers have come under pressure. It's as if a door that had been closed for a long time had suddenly been torn open, allowing fresh air to enter the Swiss system.

"Until now, I've been selling the same lettuce here in Switzerland for twice as much as I sell it at home," says farmer Rainer Schächtle. He lives in Konstanz, where his shop is located. But his fields and greenhouses are in Tägermoos on the Swiss side.

He'll go under if his Swiss customers stop buying his lettuce in the future, says Schächtle. Thanks to Swiss pay levels, his field worker alone costs him an average of 3,150 francs (€2,620) in labor costs a month. "You can't survive at German producer prices."

'Spirit of Farmers'

The bastion that is Switzerland is also under threat 296 kilometers southwest of Kreuzlingen, at the other end of the country. In Chancy, across the border from France, Robert Cramer says cheerfully: "I'm someone who clearly supports Switzerland joining the EU."

Cramer is a member of the Council of States of Switzerland, the upper chamber of the Swiss parliament. He is the first Green Party member in the history of the body. He is also an untiring champion of a cosmopolitan Switzerland.

Using the example of the Canton of Geneva, which pokes into French territory like the beak of a predatory bird, Cramer explains something that many Swiss don't like to hear: The Swiss are deluding themselves when they believe that they can isolate themselves with their wealth in an idyllic place, close to nature. "The spirit of Switzerland is a spirit of farmers," says Cramer. "But the wealth of Switzerland comes from city dwellers."

Geneva, a city of bankers, clockmakers and international organizations, is a perfect example of what Cramer is talking about. Geneva is a booming metropolis, but it's also bursting at the seams. There are many more jobs than places to live. Some 85,000 commuters cross the border from France into the canton every day.

But for some people who work in and around this bastion of prosperity, but can no longer afford to pay the equivalent of €3,000 for a three-room apartment, their only choice is to live across the border in France, where rents are only a third as high.

Keeping Geneva Within Limits

Ironically, half of the Canton of Geneva still consists of farmland and forests. But long-time residents refuse to allow development in this green belt, preferring to see workers live in Annemasse, a sort of low-cost French suburb of Geneva.

Every morning, some 8,000 blue-collar and white-collar workers -- half of the working population in Annemasse -- leave this city, with its bland apartment buildings, and head for Geneva. In return, Geneva sends €8 million in compensation to Annemasse each year. But it isn't enough to offset the border town's problems, where rents and the cost of living have risen disproportionately as a result of the higher incomes of cross-border commuters.

"One of our nursing homes is only half full, because we can't find enough nurses and workers," says Christian Dupessey, the mayor of Annemasse. Qualified candidates are emigrating in droves, he adds. "A teacher earns €2,300 here, which is a lot less than a supermarket cashier in Geneva. Seventy jobs are currently unfilled in our city administration alone."

Together with Swiss politician Cramer and other like-minded people, the mayor of Annemasse is fighting to promote a cross-border way of thinking. "It's a misconception to believe that you do better when you focus mainly on yourself." The canton hospital in Geneva would be forced to shut its doors if the French commuters who work there ever went on strike.


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