27 March 2020

Closing borders

Garrett Reisman is a former NASA astronaut and director at SpaceX. Standing at 1.60 metre, he makes fun of his height, which didn’t prevent him from spacewalking three times to repair the International Space Station. I was lucky enough to listen to his humourous presentation of his life journey a few months ago, back when face-to-face events and handshakes were still a thing. I’ll get back to our favourite virus of the moment. From Garrett Reisman’s rehearsed but still natural-flowing humour, it’s easy to tell he’s a seasoned presenter. Go and watch him on YouTube if you want to learn from his public speaking skills:

There’s one small, funny section of his presentation of the ISS that I’d like to share with you. Yes, that means I do expect you to chuckle when I get to the punchline, so help me when I get there. Here goes. The ISS is made up of several modules and components, each sponsored by a country. So there is the American module, a Canadian robotic arm, the French module, and so on with other European-funded sections. For a long time, astronauts were worried about a module attached at the edge of the space station. It would wobble, almost detaching itself but not quite – this lasted for a while, until it finally unhooked itself. That was the British module.

Mural cartoon at Jakarta's domestic airport

Hopefully you got the reference to Brexit! While continental Europeans would often joke about British insularity, I never thought the UK would actually leave the EU… even after the British voted to do so in June 2016. I actually believe the UK will rejoin the EU one day. Yet in the meantime, something unimaginable a few years ago actually did happen. Together with it, still unforeseen consequences – both to the British and the Europeans – as regards to the movement of people and goods between the UK and the EU.

Ironically, all the post-Brexit transition and discussions on future relations are now halted because of the spread of the coronavirus which is raging throughout Europe, the UK obviously being no exception despite the government’s dangerous and confusing handling of the situation. Oh and the UK government also missed the deadline to take part in an EU scheme to source life-saving ventilators. And no, that’s not even a joke. How’s Brexit working out for you, remind me? How sad.

Well, it’s not as if we didn’t know the virus was coming, did we? We were only wholly unprepared, from Italy to France and now the US. I only recently watched the 2011 film Contagion: it’s scary how accurate the screenplay is (read this excellent interview with the screenwriter if you can’t be bothered to watch the film, or if you’re too scared to see what is anyway happening in the world right now). Had I watched the film before the coronavirus outbreak, I would have considered utter science fiction the possibility that countries would close their borders one after the other or that air travel would be coming to a complete standstill.

And yet, here we are today. Borders are closed, except to the citizens and legal residents. Now you would think that because we’re not only French, German or Italian citizens but also European citizens, we wouldn’t be closing our internal borders. Hahaha, you really are naive. On 26th March 2020, Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European commission, was quoted as saying: “A crisis without borders cannot be resolved by putting barriers between us and yet this is exactly the first reflex that many European countries have”. So much for my desire for real unity. I’m not even fooling myself, since I was writing the following statement on 11th November 2018: “the European Union could be the start of [...] a federation, if only nationalistic sentiments weren’t seemingly so powerful”.

That’s part of the motivation I had to take matters in my own (washed) hands, namely applying for Swiss citizenship. More than 2 years have passed since I had first considered applying for it, thinking about it again 18 months ago, and today finally formally submitting my 30-document application. The process will now run for up to… 3 years, with the cornerstone being an interview by elected members and citizens of the village I live in: they will grill me to see if I know Swiss customs and politics well enough, and test whether I’m integrated enough into Swiss society. If you think that’s easy, first remember that the interview is exclusively in German and that even people who have lived all their lives in Switzerland (including having Swiss children) had their application rejected (alright, the guy is British, that’s maybe why!).

To get to that point of being allowed to apply today, I had to go through a few hoops. The first one was to retrain my German language skills, which ironically I had barely used in more than 20 years since I travel quite a bit (well I used to travel quite a bit before the spread of the virus, just making it back from Asia in January). Intense self-teaching allowed me to pass the 4 exams (hearing, reading, writing, speaking) at the Goethe-Institut last September. The canton I live in being a little more restrictive than others, the language requirements were a notch higher than those required at the federal level, just my luck! Then last February, I had to take a written 90-minute exam on Swiss society and politics, which made me sweat like I hadn’t in a long time. Succeeding at this exam, I could finally do the “easy” part: copies of my passport, residence permit, rental contract and work contract, 2 latest payslips, latest tax return, 3 years of tax payment confirmations, confirmation of registration with a health insurance, village and cantonal confirmations that I paid my taxes on time, village confirmation of residency in the past 10 years, cantonal confirmation that I hold a residence permit (no idea why the copy of my permit isn’t enough), sub-cantonal confirmation that I haven’t used social benefits, federal confirmation that I’m not a criminal (spoiler alert: I’m not), signature of the charter to confirm I’m integrated, my CV in German, and the contact details of 3 Swiss citizens who can testify about my respectability and integration level. Oh and this is not free of course, but I guess that’s fair (what’s a little unfair is that costs vary greatly from canton to canton).

Confirmation that I submitted my application

There are obviously other reasons for me attempting to become Swiss. First of all, I really got to enjoy living here since 2008. The country is “compactly” beautiful. The Swiss administration is super responsive and helpful. Yes, it’s a rich country but other rich countries don’t seem to have the quality of life I can experience here: an efficient public system (I’ll never need to own a car) or residents who abide to the law (how many stories have I heard of people forgetting their wallet on the train, to then have it returned – cash not missing a penny – at the Lost & Found office) or “my” (Zürich) lake. I am also much more in tune with the neutral stance of the Swiss than France’s hypocritical and cynical foreign policy. I could go on and on, and I’ll be sure to structure my thoughts in preparation of the interview, whenever that happens, up to 3 years from today – in addition of practising my memory of the names of all the village councillors as well as their political party membership, and being able to explain in German once again the way direct democracy works in the country.

If I am successful in becoming Swiss, I won’t have to give up my French citizenship – I would still want to remain a European Union citizen. Perhaps for once will I be able to consider myself a little proud of being a “new” citizen, not merely happy.