The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei, SVP) seems to spark controversy every time it puts up a political poster. (Who can forget its placards in favour of last year’s referendum to ban minarets, which depicted the spires as menacing rockets atop the country’s flag.) Last week, new billboards appeared on streets in Canton Ticino showing rats taking bites out of Swiss cheese. But instead of creeping Islamisation, this time party officials had a new target: next-door neighbour Italy.
The latest SVP initiative, which includes a website and Facebook page, is a protest against the 45,000 Italians, known as frontalieri, who cross the border each day to earn a living as builders, factory workers, nurses and researchers in the Italian-speaking canton. On average, the Italians work for lower salaries than their Swiss counterparts, while a bilateral accord stipulates that a share of income tax paid by cross-border employees is returned south – last year, Ticino authorities sent 56 million Swiss francs to Italian coffers.
With the Swiss economy in the process of righting itself and cantonal unemployment higher than the national average, local members of the SVP believed they had found a potential vote winner come election time. So the SVP, currently the biggest party in the Swiss parliament, hired a Ticino advertising agency to come up with a provocative message.
But just as the party drew flak for its black sheep poster in support of deporting foreigners – which even the UN condemned as racist – officials again found themselves in hot water for caricaturing their southern neighbours as rodents. The Swiss ambassador to Rome was quickly forced to issue an apology.
In response to escalating tensions, Pierre Rusconi, president of the SVP in Ticino and mastermind of the initiative, called a press conference to defend his party. “Nobody wants to expel anyone, but there’s a problem that the authorities in our view haven’t addressed,” said Rusconi. “Swiss employers, too, bear some responsibility; they want to brand their products as ‘Swiss made’, but they don’t care if hardly anything is made by the Swiss.”
Rusconi also questioned why an apology wasn’t forthcoming from Italy’s Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, who last year labelled Ticino a canton of “mafiosi”. Not surprisingly, one of the rats on the posters is named Giulio and brandishes a shield, a reference to a recent tax amnesty drawn up by Tremonti that is known as the scudo fiscale (“fiscal shield”).
Tremonti’s proposal has permitted Italians to repatriate assets from foreign bank accounts without fear of criminal prosecution and made them pay only a 5 per cent penalty. This has been a major blow to Switzerland – the Bank of Italy estimates tax evaders have returned €67bn from Swiss vaults. Among the worst hit are financial institutions in the town of Lugano in Ticino, Switzerland’s third largest banking centre and just an hour’s drive from Milan.