Switzerland shows federalism working

Switzerland’s cantons include French, German and Italian speaking ones, as well as predominantly Catholic and Protestant ones. Following an 1847 civil war, one that was over in a month with fewer than 100 casualties, Switzerland became a federal state on September 12th, 1848, inspired by the American model. The constitution established a central authority, but left much of local self-government in the hands of the cantons.

It acted to create uniform standards, with a uniform postal service in 1849, and a single currency in 1850. Customs duties between cantons were abolished. A nationwide telegraph service was set up in 1851, and weights and measures unified in 1868. The constitution forbade Swiss from fighting in foreign wars, except for the Vatican’s Swiss Guard. A revised 1874 constitution gave the federal government the responsibility defence, trade and law. While the 1848 constitution granted only to Christians the right of free movement and freedom of religion, this was extended in 1866 to all Swiss citizens of whatever religion.

The Swiss federal system works, and has kept the country at peace, both from internal conflict and from foreign wars. Switzerland has stayed neutral, though its citizens have compulsory military training. In the Cold War it built nuclear shelters for its population in case the worst happened. It had a programme that could have given it nuclear weapons, but abandoned this when detente and arms limitation treaties eased international tensions.

Famously Switzerland has referenda to decide on contentious issues. There have been several on the EU, which Switzerland applied to join at one stage, but withdrew its application following popular opposition. It has, however, signed bilateral agreements with the EU, and was a founding member of EFTA, though it rejected membership of the EEA. A 2011 referendum saw 85% opposing a ban on assisted suicide, with 78% opposed to outlawing it for foreigners.

The other side to the peace and harmony that Swiss federalism has engendered was mischievously put by Orson Wells in “The Third Man” movie.

“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

It might have been more accurate to say 100 years rather than 500 years of brotherly love. In any case, the Swiss also make excellent watches and precision instruments, they do banking pretty well, and they produce a rather good cheese.