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Explaining Politics: Switzerland

Explaining Politics: Switzerland

Chocolate and Cheese. French and German. Passive yet active. Switzerland is a country built on binary opposites. Switzerland shouldn’t work – but somehow it does.

Switzerland, or the Swiss Confederacy, has existed as a federal state since 1848. Previously a part of the Holy Roman Empire, the old Swiss Confederacy acquired independence in 1648 under the Treaty of Westphalia. The state’s pioneering policy of neutrality – now one of 20 countries to adopt such a position - was first formally recognised in this treaty.

Switzerland had actually adopted a de facto stance of neutrality since 1515 after the Old Swiss Confederacy was destroyed at the Battle of Marignano. The policy of neutrality has been at the forefront of Swiss foreign policy ever since. At the Congress of Vienna, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Switzerland declared an official position of ‘perpetual neutrality’ in relation to the rest of the world. At the time, Swiss mercenaries were often highly sought after to swing the tide of a war – it was therefore within all countries’ interests to limit their usage.

The Swiss Constitution of 1999 sets out Swiss independence and welfare as the supreme object of the country’s foreign policy. One of the duties of the Swiss parliament is to ensure the ‘independence and the neutrality of Switzerland’. The landlocked Swiss are not to enter military alliances unless attacked and cannot pick a side in international conflicts.

Yet, this passivity does not mean that Switzerland has been inactive through the events of major history. During much of World War 1, Switzerland was home to Vladimir Lenin; and the country’s Red Cross helped 68,000 POWs from all nations recover in the Alps. Before the Second World War, the Swiss prepared for a German invasion from the north. Hitler had set out to conquer Switzerland in ‘Operation Tannenbaum’, but this plan never came to fruition. Throughout the war, Swiss forces shot down Axis and Allied planes who violated the country’s airspace; and Swiss banks traded gold and francs with any party willing to do business. The creation of The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Bern in conjunction with the US was a precursor for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and is perhaps the most significant Swiss contribution to the war. This partnership led to the recovery of Corsica and Sardinia from Axis powers.

Neutrality has also spearheaded post-war government policy. Switzerland is not a member of Nato but is party to the Partnership for Peace scheme: a programme of cooperation for non-members to conduct a dialogue regarding security policy.

Switzerland’s approach to the European Union is similarly standoffish. The adoption of the ‘Swiss Model’ was often proposed as an option for the UK throughout the Brexit campaign. This would mean not being a member of the EU but maintaining a close relationship built on multiple bilateral agreements - Switzerland currently has over 120 with the EU. Such agreements include being a member of the single-market and the Schengen Area, but not the Customs Union. The EU’s third-largest trading partner is Switzerland, whilst the EU is the Swiss’ greatest commercial ally. In a 1992 referendum, the Swiss people said no to joining the European Economic Area and in 2016 the government formally withdrew their application for EU membership.

In a move that bucked the Swiss trend of political isolationism, Switzerland joined the United Nations after a referendum in 2002. Despite the UN European Headquarters being adjacent to Lake Geneva since 1946, Switzerland has always remained at arms-length to the UN. Those against the decision to join claimed that such membership has ‘deeply damaged’ Swiss neutrality; others have welcomed the decision, allowing Switzerland to ‘assume its responsibilities in the world’. Switzerland has backed UN economic sanctions on Sierra Leone and Libya.

If you take one thing from this article, let it be this: the Swiss have many referendums – since 1848 there have been 600 of them. More than one third of the world’s national referendums have occurred in Switzerland. This is because Switzerland is a partially direct democracy – and is the only country in the world to possess the pure form of democracy. Any citizen can demand a popular referendum on any law by parliament. This can be done if a person acquires 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days of its enactment. Some laws, such as those which alter the constitution, or affect international obligations, must be approved in a referendum. In the cantons of Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden, the purest form of democracy is still practiced in which citizens assemble once a year and vote by raising their on laws proposed by the cantonal government.

The calamity of the past three years has led many to conclude that referenda only result in fractious politics and unstable economics, but Switzerland suggests otherwise. Consistently one of the most stable economies, Switzerland is regularly ranked in the world’s top 20 GDPs. Banking is what Switzerland is best known for, despite the foundations of the economy being the textiles industry. The strong national sovereignty and stance of perpetual neutrality has created a stable economy which investors and the wealthy are keen to utilise. In tandem to this, the enshrining of law in 1934 that Swiss bank account holders’ names were not to be disclosed has made Switzerland the world’s largest centre for the management of offshore funds - current estimates suggest there is $2.3 trillion from abroad in Switzerland.

Democracy has taken a bludgeoning over the past few years, but Switzerland perhaps shows sceptics that, even in its purest form, the theory does not always result in divisions and instability.


Photo Credit: Harrison Hunter

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