“Thousands of Swiss have travelled here to support their team,” said a Swiss TV football commentator. It was just before kick-off in Lisbon on October 10, where Portugal were about to face their group leaders, unbeaten Switzerland, in a World Cup qualifying match.
“So,” he went on, more or less, “have thousands of Portuguese who live in Switzerland. They’re here to support their national team.”
Foreigners make up nearly a quarter of the 8.3 million people living in Switzerland. Just under 300,000, or around 13% of all foreign residents, are Portuguese, the third largest, after Germans and Italians.
They are sometimes the most visible, flying their flag from apartments, allotments and even cars, particularly during major international football tournaments.
(They were also happy with the result in Lisbon. Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates finally managed to beat the Swiss and to qualify for the World Cup finals. Switzerland now face the play-offs in mid-November.)
There are benefits from having such a large immigrant population both economically and culturally. Migrants strengthen the labour force in both unskilled and skilled jobs. They add cultural diversity and colour, as has been Switzerland’s experience for centuries.
But they also bring tensions. By coincidence, on October 10, the very day Switzerland and Portugal played in Lisbon, the Swiss Federal Statistics Office released preliminary results of its first survey on attitudes towards diversity and coexistence.
“In 2016, 36% of the population said they might feel uncomfortable in the presence of people perceived to be different, due to, for example, their nationality, religion or skin colour,” the Statistics Office said.
“Nevertheless, overall the population is tolerant: most are in favour of granting more rights to foreign nationals. 66% recognise that racism is a key social problem and 56% believe that the integration of migrants in Swiss society is working well.”
It continued: “The presence of many social groups and a variety of affiliations is a feature of life in Switzerland. For example, there are more than ten main religious communities in a population of over 190 nationalities. This diversity is enriching for society but can also create challenges in living together. The FSO’s new survey helps us to feel the pulse of multicultural coexistence in Switzerland.”
The tensions are not just social. Individuals can suffer from divided loyalties and muddled identities too.
Those Portuguese fans who travelled to Lisbon to cheer Ronaldo and co were pretty clear where their loyalties lay. But if their children have grown up in Switzerland, attended school, made friends, even acquired Swiss nationality, the children might actually have supported the other side.
Of the 19 current players in the Swiss national football squad, at least 13 were either born outside Switzerland or are children of recent immigrants (interestingly none have Portuguese roots at the moment).
They include the flamboyant Xherdan Shaqiri who was born in Gjilan, Kosovo, to Kosovo Albanian parents, and plays for Stoke City in the English Premier League, and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, who was born in Switzerland and whose parents are also Kosovo Albanian. Many ethnic Albanians moved to Switzerland during Kosovo’s struggle for independence from Serbia.
Incredibly, nine of the 2016 Albanian team had been born or raised in Switzerland and five of the Swiss team at that tournament had Albanian or Kosovan roots — Kosovans are about 5% of foreign residents.
This doesn’t only happen in Switzerland. Six years before that in South Africa in 2010, Berlin-born Kevin-Prince Boateng played for Ghana against a Germany team that included his half-brother Jérôme, the first time brothers had ever played against each other at a World Cup finals. They did it again four years later in Brazil.
Kevin-Prince Boateng has played professionally in Germany, England, Italy and Spain, but never in Ghana. For footballers, choosing which country to play for can partly be about choosing between a team with the highest prestige and one where the player gets a better chance of being selected.
Layers of citizenship?
Sport highlights the passion many people feel about their identity. But these are no longer simple questions and many in Europe are increasingly having to confront the more complex ones.
The most recent confrontation has been in Spain, where Catalonia is seeking independence. Much of the debate is political and constitutional — Spain’s constitution makes it difficult if not impossible for a region to secede, unlike for example, moves for Scottish independence in the United Kingdom.
The referendum in Catalonia was illegal and disrupted, but the result was overwhelming. Nevertheless, there are also Catalans both inside Catalonia and the rest of Spain who don’t want to split. In Catalonia are people who come from other parts of Spain who love living there but also don’t want a split. And opposition is strong in the rest of Spain where secession is seen as destroying unity, or showing disloyalty or worse.
There’s even a football question about Catalonia. What tournaments would Barcelona play in if Catalonia becomes independent? There’s been some talk of Barcelona joining the English Premier League, although it’s unclear how the citizens of Catalonia would relate to that. And what would happen to its commercial interests?
Barcelona’s Gerard Piqué has been emotionally torn between being a Catalan and playing for Spain. His distress sums up the conflict of personal feelings, emotional ties and loyalty that nationality can trigger. Independence is about economics and politics. Nationality can also be personal.
All of this comes at a time when many are asking whether it might not be more realistic to look at multiple layers of citizenship. It’s a question that’s being asked particularly in Britain as it prepares to leave (to “Brexit”) the European Union (EU).
One of the symbols is passports. Those of EU member states also have “European Union” on the cover. One of the rallying calls for the British vote to leave the EU was to remove this from United Kingdom passports, a rejection of the implied EU citizenship. Many who voted to remain in the EU say they are proud to be EU citizens as well as of the UK, even though strictly speaking the EU doesn’t have citizens.
Rush for dual nationality
A key issue in the present phase of the Brexit talks is about preserving the rights of three million people in the UK, mainly citizens of EU countries but also from Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, and also the rights of 1.2 million United Kingdom citizens in those other countries
They have travelled to live and work across Europe under the principle of “freedom of movement of people” in the EU Single Market and in agreements with those four other countries.
The negotiation is complex. Essentially both sides want to preserve the core of those rights, but the UK is unwilling to continue to guarantee that European citizens can bring in family members, while the EU is reported to be unwilling to give UK citizens the freedom to move between EU countries after Brexit.
As a result, many Europeans in Britain are now seeking to take up UK nationality in addition to their own, and many British citizens are seeking dual nationality in Ireland, Germany or elsewhere, if that’s permitted.
The UK allows its citizens to have an unlimited number of nationalities provided that is accepted by the other countries concerned.
Some have much tighter policies. The Netherlands for example only rarely allows dual nationality. But it has now announced that its 100,000 citizens in the UK will be allowed to keep Dutch nationality if they become British as well.
This is not straightforward. In a sense, what many people living in foreign lands are doing is similar to why footballers choose different nationalities. Some are not, for various reasons. But those that are taking up new citizenship because of Brexit are doing it at least partly for practical reasons, so they can continue to live and work in those countries. Before Brexit started looming, they were in no hurry to acquire new nationality and might never have done so.
Brexit has forced them to think. For some it’s about realising how they can be Polish while wanting to live in the UK. For others, it’s about feeling both British and European, a sentiment also expressed by Europhiles across the EU in reaction to Brexit.
On the one hand, we are increasingly in a world where a person can be Scottish, British and a citizen of the EU all at once, or Catalan, Spanish and EU. On the other, these different identities are also exposing struggles to be separate.
There are, of course, forces working in the opposite direction. Anti-EU sentiment is also on the rise in a number of countries, mainly through extreme right-wing parties, not only the UK. And the very idea of multiple allegiances is an anathema to many.
Just over a year ago, British Prime Minister Theresa May told the annual conference of her Conservative Party: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
Many reacted on social media by adding to their profiles in protest: “citizen of the world” or “citizen of nowhere”. Many insisted they could be both British and European.
Is May’s view of “what the very word ‘citizenship’ means” on the wane? Only time will tell.
But the reality is that the tensions are not just about one national identity, about Catalonia versus Spain or Scotland versus the United Kingdom or Britain versus the European Union — or Portugal versus Switzerland. They are increasingly also about how feasible it is to have multiple identities and even to make a virtue out of divided loyalties.
Peter Ungphakorn is based on the shores of Lake Léman in Switzerland. He spent almost two decades with the WTO Secretariat, Geneva. Before that he worked for The Nation and the Bangkok Post. He now writes for IEG Policy on agricultural trade issues and blogs on trade, Brexit and other issues at https://tradebetablog.wordpress.com/