Border Barriers Swiss Musical Chairs

Musicians have been coming to Basel in Switzerland for centuries to study and play medieval music. But only if they have the right paperwork.
The Basel ensemble Profeti della Quinta are a mainstay in the Swiss city. But foreign acts have a tough time getting the legal permits to play.

As a musician, Dan Dunkelblum is used to uncertainty and change. But a clampdown on Swiss immigration laws means his future is more uncertain than ever.

He is part of the Profeti della Quinta ensemble. The group was founded in Galilee in Israel, but all its members studied at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, a world renowned center for early music in the Swiss city of Basel. And like many of their fellow musicians, they stayed on, collaborating with musicians from around the world.

Musicians have come to the city of Basel for years, bearing their lutes, harpsichords and fiddles. The city, which sits on the banks of the Rhine river, has long been a mecca for early music.

Performers come here to study at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis music conservatory, and to play Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music in the churches and concert halls around the 12th century town.  They come as students, but often stay on to play professionally.

Several foreign musicians who have based themselves for years in Basel now face deportation, amid a crackdown in immigration laws.

According to Swiss employment law,  those who do not have permanent work contracts or work at least 75 percent of the time, do not have the right to indefinite leave to remain. Some 55 musicians who do not have permanent jobs, and have worked less than 75 percent of their time, are now being told that they do not fulfill the criteria to remain in the country, and must leave.

Up to this point, they had been allowed to stay thanks to the lax attitude of an administrative assistant in the local authority who got around the legislation by giving them a continuous supply of temporary permits usually given as one-offs to visiting artists or seasonal staff.

The old permit of stay was unsatisfactory. Dan Dunkelblum, Tenor of the Profeti della Quinta ensemble

But in October 2013, the administrative assistant was charged with abuse of office and the city administration is now reviewing all its permits.

Mr. Dunkleblum is, in one way, happy that the system is being clarified.

“The old permit of stay was unsatisfactory,” he said. “One could not change one’s phone provider or rent a flat because one never had the right documents. We don’t know what the future will bring but at least we have a situation that is clearer now.”

But the band still needs to find a base.

The members of the ensemble have asked the German border town of Weil am Rhein if they could reside there. The city appears willing to accept the musicians, but they face a similar problem there. In Weil am Rhein too, only E.U. citizens can get visas.

The group is reluctant to move back to Israel as they say life is too expensive there and the music scene is relatively small.

There is a more general debate on whether Swiss immigration law suits Basel’s artistic culture.

The Swiss “Ecopop initiative”, a Swiss voluntary association established in 1971 dedicated to the preservation of non-renewable resources and the reduction of overpopulation, held a referendum on November 30 last year, asking people to vote on limiting immigration. It was rejected by voters.

The parliament of Basel has recently adopted a common resolution pushing for better working conditions for foreign musicians, and politicians from the conservative corner of the country have initiated a petition calling for allowing talent from abroad to remain in Switzerland.

“We want the best people worldwide. They should come to us. We offer them a great country," Patrick Hafner, of the national conservative Swiss people's party, said.

This article first appeared in daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.  Sarah Mewes who is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin contributed to this article. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]