|SWITZERLAND COAT OF ARMS|
Location of Switzerland within the Continent of Europe
Map of Switzerland
Flag Description of Switzerland: The Switzerland national flag was adopted on December 12, 1889.
The red field with a centered white cross was adapted from the flag of Schwyz, one of the orginal three cantons (regions) of the country. It reflects a common flag style from medieval times (square field with cross), and today, only the recognized national flags of Switzerland and Vatican City are perfect squares.
Official name Swiss Confederation1
Form of government federal state with two legislative houses (Council of States ; National Council )
Head of state and government President of the Federal Council: Simonetta Sommaruga
Official languages French; German; Italian; Romansh (locally)
Official religion none
Monetary unit Swiss franc (CHF)
Population (2013 est.) 8,083,000COLLAPSE
Total area (sq mi) 15,940
Total area (sq km) 41,285
- Urban: (2011) 73.7%
- Rural: (2011) 26.3%
Life expectancy at birth
- Male: (2012) 80.5 years
- Female: (2012) 84.7 years
Literacy: percentage of population age 15 and over literate
- Male: 100%
- Female: 100%
GNI per capita (U.S.$) (2013) 80,950
1Official long-form name in French is Confédération Suisse; in German, Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft; in Italian, Confederazione Svizzera; in Romansh, Confederaziun Svizra.
2The federal supreme court is located in Lausanne.
Background of Switzerland
The Swiss Confederation was founded in 1291 as a defensive alliance among three cantons. In succeeding years, other localities joined the original three. The Swiss Confederation secured its independence from the Holy Roman Empire in 1499. A constitution of 1848, subsequently modified in 1874, replaced the confederation with a centralized federal government. Switzerland's sovereignty and neutrality have long been honored by the major European powers, and the country was not involved in either of the two world wars. The political and economic integration of Europe over the past half century, as well as Switzerland's role in many UN and international organizations, has strengthened Switzerland's ties with its neighbors. However, the country did not officially become a UN member until 2002. Switzerland remains active in many UN and international organizations but retains a strong commitment to neutrality.
Switzerland, federated country of central Europe. Switzerland’s administrative capital is Bern, while Lausanne serves as its judicial centre. Switzerland’s small size—its total area is about half that of Scotland—and its modest population give little indication of its international significance.
A landlocked country of towering mountains, deep Alpine lakes, grassy valleys dotted with neat farms and small villages, and thriving cities that blend the old and the new, Switzerland is the nexus of the diverse physical and cultural geography of western Europe, renowned for both its natural beauty and its way of life. Aspects of both have become bywords for the country, whose very name conjures images of the glacier-carved Alps beloved of writers, artists, photographers, and outdoor sports enthusiasts from around the world.
For many outsiders, Switzerland also evokes a prosperous if rather staid and unexciting society, an image that is now dated. Switzerland remains wealthy and orderly, but its mountain-walled valleys are far more likely to echo the music of a local rock band than a yodel or an alphorn. Most Swiss live in towns and cities, not in the idyllic rural landscapes that captivated the world through Johanna Spyri’s Heidi (1880–81), the country’s best-known literary work. Switzerland’s cities have emerged as international centres of industry and commerce connected to the larger world, a very different tenor from Switzerland’s isolated, more inward-looking past. As a consequence of its remarkably long-lived stability and carefully guarded neutrality, Switzerland—Geneva, in particular—has been selected as headquarters for a wide array of governmental and nongovernmental organizations, including many associated with the United Nations (UN)—an organization the Swiss resisted joining until the early 21st century.
Switzerland’s rugged topography and multicultural milieu have tended to emphasize difference. People living in close proximity may speak markedly distinct, sometimes nearly mutually unintelligible dialects of their first language, if not a different language altogether. German, French, Italian, and Romansh all enjoy national status, and English is spoken widely. Invisible lines separate historically Protestant from historically Roman Catholic districts, while the tall mountains of the Saint Gotthard Pass separate northern from southern Europe and their diverse sensibilities and habits. Yet, Switzerland has forged strength from all these differences, creating a peaceful society in which individual rights are carefully balanced against community and national interests.
Switzerland was formed in 1291 by an alliance of cantons against the Habsburg dynasty—the Confoederatio Helvetica (or Swiss Confederation), from which the abbreviation CH for Switzerland derives—though only in 1848, when a new constitution was adopted, was the present nation formed. Prior to 1848, internal conflict was quite common, but Switzerland has enjoyed relative domestic tranquility since the mid-19th century, and its organization has remained essentially the same: it is a union of more than 3,000 communes, or municipalities, situated in 26 cantons, 6 of which are traditionally referred to as demicantons (half cantons) but function as full cantons. Ordinary citizens are able to participate at every level of politics and regularly exercise their will in referenda and initiatives, through which Swiss citizens directly make numerous policy decisions at the national and subnational level. Two effects of this popular involvement are evident: Swiss taxes are rather low by European standards, because voters are able to review and approve a broad range of expenditures, and political decision making tends to be slow, because contending individual claims and opinions must be allowed to be expressed at every step.
That high level of citizen involvement prompted the renowned 20th-century Swiss playwright and ironist Friedrich Dürrenmatt to allegorize Switzerland as a prison in which each Swiss citizen was at the same time prisoner and guard. Even so, the Swiss blend of federalism and direct democracy is unique in the world and is considered central to the country’s political and economic success. And Switzerland is indeed a major economic power, thanks to its long tradition of financial services and high-quality, specialized manufactures of items such as precision timepieces, optics, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals, as well as of specialty foodstuffs such as Emmentaler cheese and milk chocolate. Switzerland is regularly judged to have among the world’s highest standards of living.
Bern is a placid city whose name derives from the bear pits the canton’s medieval rulers established there as a heraldic symbol; the bear pits are now part of the city’s popular zoo. A metropolis extending along a large lake where the mountains meet the plains, Zürich is by far the country’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, its famed Bahnhofstrasse rivaling shopping districts found in other leading cities in the world. Basel and Lucerne are major German-speaking cities, Geneva and Lausanne the centres of the country’s French-speaking cantons, and Bellinzona and Lugano the principal cities in the Italian-speaking Ticino.
Switzerland has long been a model multiethnic, multilingual society, a place in which diverse peoples can live in social harmony and unite in common interest. The Swiss justifiably take great pride in this, and the point was encapsulated in the early 21st century by Ruth Dreifuss, who in 1999 became the country’s first woman and first Jewish president (a post that rotates annually):
- I may be a native speaker of French, but my parents
- originally came from German-speaking Switzerland and I
- myself worked in an Italian-speaking area for a while and
- enjoy travelling to all parts of the country…. I live in a
- neighbourhood in which over 100 different nationalities live
- together in peace and harmony…. I greatly appreciate this
Geography of Switzerland
Switzerland is bordered to the west by France, to the north by Germany, to the east by Austria and Liechtenstein, and to the south by Italy. It extends about 135 miles (220 km) from north to south and 220 miles (350 km) at its widest extent from west to east. Switzerland’s landscape is among the world’s most unusual, and it has long had to contend with a variety of environmental problems that threaten its integrity. Economic development and high population density have caused severe environmental stress, resulting in pollution and debates over the use of natural resources. During the 1970s and ’80s, ambitious environmental policies were implemented by the cantons and municipalities, and this led to impressive progress on pollution abatement. For example, air-pollution emissions in Switzerland are among the lowest in industrialized countries.
- Relief and drainage
Situated at the hydrographic centre of Europe, Switzerland is the source of many major rivers. The two most important are the Rhône, which flows into the Mediterranean Sea, and the Rhine, which empties into the North Sea. Switzerland’s small area contains an unusual diversity of topographic elements, which are divisible into three distinct regions: the Jura Mountains in the northwest, the Alps to the south and east, and the Mittelland, or central plateau, between the two mountain ranges.
The Jura (Celtic: “Forest”), a rolling mountain range in the northwest, occupies about one-eighth of the country. The region was formed under the extended impact of the general Alpine folding, which created the folded Jura that abuts the Mittelland and the tabular plateau Jura that forms the northern edge of the range. Jurassic limestone and marl with rich fossil content are the characteristic rocks that dip below the Mittelland and appear again in the pre-Alps. The limestone has been eroded in typical karst fashion, with sinkholes, caves, and underground drainage common. The ridges, covered with meadows and only sparsely forested, receive more precipitation than do the valleys, the slopes of which are wooded. Between Saint-Imier Valley (Vallon St. Imier) and the Doubs, a river that forms part of the border with France, the Jura has been reduced by denudation to form an undulating plateau that extends into France. Known as the Franches Montagnes (French: “Free Mountains”), a name acquired in 1384 when the bishop of Basel freed the inhabitants from taxation to encourage settlement of the remote area, this tableland is characterized by mixed agriculture and dairying. The highest point in the Jura, Monte Tendre, at about 5,500 feet (1,700 metres), is well below the Alps; indeed, the Jura was not a significant barrier to surface movement even before modern railroads and highways were constructed. Entrenched transverse valleys known as cluses have been eroded across the Jura ridges, providing relatively easy routes for transportation. The climate of the Jura, which has abundant precipitation, is the most continental of Switzerland; cross-country skiing is popular during the long winters. Switzerland’s watchmaking industry had its beginning in these mountains.
The Alps were built of large complexes of massed overthrusts of extremely varied sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rocks that were shaped by glaciation. The canton of Valais contains many striking Alpine peaks, including the Dufourspitze on the Monte Rosa massif, at 15,203 feet (4,634 metres) the highest point in Switzerland; the Weisshorn (14,780 feet [4,405 metres]), overlooking the valley called the Mattertal; the Dom (14,912 feet [4,545 metres]), above the village of Saas Fee; and the ice-sculpted Matterhorn (14,691 feet [4,478 metres]), long a symbol of Switzerland. The northern and southern Swiss Alps are separated by the trough formed by the Rhône and upper Rhine valleys, the narrowest portion being the Urseren valley, which lies between two crystalline central massifs, the Gotthard and the Aare.
The Alps’ role as the European watershed is most apparent in the central Alpine region of Switzerland, where the different chains meet; from there the Rhône River flows west, the Rhine River east, the Ticino River south to the Po River, and the Reuss River north to the Aare. The fundamental Alpine source point, however, is located in the upper Engadin valley at the Piz Lunghin, from which streams flow toward the North and Adriatic seas and from which the headwaters of the Inn River flow toward the Danube and ultimately into the Black Sea.
The country’s geographically destined role as guardian of Europe’s natural trans-Alpine routes has been both a reason for and a basic tenet of its existence—a role expressed in its traditional neutrality in times of war. In the central Alpine region lies the Saint Gotthard route, the first and shortest north-south passage through the mountains and an important European linkage; it was opened in the early 13th century with the construction of a bridge in the Schöllenen Gorge, which traverses the northern chain, while the southern range is crossed by the Saint Gotthard Pass at an elevation of 6,916 feet (2,108 metres). The 9-mile (14-km) Saint Gotthard rail tunnel through the pass was opened in 1882; a twin 10.5-mile (17-km) road tunnel was opened in 1980. Despite the tunnels, increasing rail and highway traffic often results in long delays through the mountains. For example, on weekends during the peak summer tourist season, cars and trucks are often backed up some 10 to 15 miles (16 to 25 km).
Between the Jura and main Alpine ranges lies the hilly Mittelland, accounting for nearly one-fourth of the country and enclosed by the two mountain ranges and the two largest lakes, Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) in the west and Lake Constance (Bodensee) in the east. The fertile rolling land of the Mittelland is the agricultural heartland of the country and is where the majority of Swiss settlements, population, and industry are situated. Furthermore, vital east-west highway and rail routes bind the urban areas. As a result, the Mittelland is highly urbanized, with large chunks of land sterilized by shopping centres, housing estates, motorways, oil-storage tanks, container depots, warehouses, automobile distribution centres, and industrial complexes.
Soil conditions and agriculture reflect the diversity of Switzerland’s climate and geologic structure. The major soil groups consist of gray-brown podzolic soils and brown forest soils, loess, glacial drift, and alluvium in the Mittelland; brown forest soils, rendzinas, and the heavier glacial clays in the Jura valleys; and the lithosol and podzolized soils of the high Alps.'
Four major European climates affect Switzerland. From the west, influenced by the North Atlantic Drift, come mild and moist air masses; dry and cold air arrives from the North Arctic areas; continental air from the east brings dry colder air in winter and warmer air in summer; and relatively moist and warm air flows northward from the Mediterranean. The mixing of these air masses over Switzerland produces weather patterns that not only change according to which air masses are involved but also are characterized by great variation in temperature and precipitation because of local relief.
- WIND SYSTEMS
Prevailing winds are mainly from the west, but in valleys air currents are channeled into particularly frequent or violent local winds such as the Bise, a cold northeast wind that sweeps across the Mittelland and funnels down Lake Geneva to the city of Geneva. Foehn (German: Föhn) winds, which are associated with the leading edge of a low-pressure system moving across Europe north of Switzerland, often blow for one or two days; though they may occur anytime during the year, they are most frequent in spring. Sudden temperature increases occur because the foehn, which crosses the Alps from south to north (it can also blow from north to south, affecting Ticino), cools at a slower rate rising over the mountains because of precipitation; it is then heated and dried as it descends down the northern valleys, thereby moderating the climate on the northern slopes of the Alps.
Since rainfall tends to increase in direct proportion to altitude, precipitation varies according to relief. Thus, because of the marked variation in relief that characterizes Switzerland, differences in precipitation within short linear distances are often very great. For example, Sankt Gallen (St. Gall), at 2,556 feet (779 metres), has an average annual precipitation of about 50 inches (1,300 mm), while precipitation at Säntis, at an elevation of 8,202 feet (2,500 metres) but only some 12 miles (20 km) away, is more than 110 inches (2,800 mm). The average annual precipitation of three-fourths of the country exceeds 40 inches (1,000 mm), varying amounts of which fall as snow. In Lugano (at 896 feet [273 metres]), which is located in the canton of Ticino in the southeast and has a modified Mediterranean climate, little precipitation is in the form of snow; in Zürich (at 1,824 feet [556 metres]) about one-tenth is snow; and on the Säntis nearly three-fourths is snow. At elevations above 11,500 feet (3,500 metres), all precipitation is in the form of snow, which compacts into perpetual snowfields and glaciers; the snow line is at about 9,200 feet (2,800 metres) in the northern Alps and about 10,800 feet (3,300 metres) in the southern Alps of the Valais.
- DRY AREAS
There are distinct dry pockets in the mountains of Switzerland’s interior. The best-known dry area is the Rhône valley in the Valais, which is closely encircled by the highest (13,000 feet [4,000 metres]) mountain groups. Although precipitation is slight on the slopes near the cantonal capital of Sion (at 1,581 feet [482 metres]), extensive irrigation is possible, since the valley is surrounded by large snowfields and by glaciers that extend down the upper valleys. The rarefied and dry though somewhat polluted air of such high-altitude towns as Davos (5,216 feet [1,590 metres]) and Arosa (5,987 feet [1,825 metres]) permits a more intense, broader-spectrum solar irradiation and thus produces a climate famous in the past for tuberculosis cures. Today the climate attracts skiers as well as tourists seeking an escape from the polluted air of lowland Europe. At elevations of 13,000 feet (4,000 metres), precipitation levels rise to some 160 inches (4,000 mm), and the Mönch (13,448 feet [4,099 metres]) in the Jungfrau group of mountains has the highest average annual precipitation in Switzerland, 163 inches (4,140 mm), while Stalden in the entrenched Vispa valley, 4 miles (6 km) south of the main Rhône valley, has the lowest, 21 inches (533 mm).
- SKIES AND TEMPERATURES
The stable high-pressure weather conditions prevailing over central Europe and the Alps during autumn and winter create cold air masses that result in lowland fog, a climatic phenomenon with widely varying consequences. The mouths of the northern Alpine valleys, the basins of the Jura Mountains, and the villages and cities of the low areas of the Mittelland are blanketed for days and often for weeks on end, while towns located at higher altitudes enjoy warm, brilliant, high-pressure conditions and the view of the glistening sea of fog below them. Temperature inversions between mountain and valley locations in close proximity can be quite pronounced, with higher elevations having higher temperature readings. Frequent temperature inversion has made Switzerland’s high-altitude resorts healthful places even during winter and has helped the Alpine winter season gain popularity in Europe for sports; in addition, because of these inversions polluted air is much less common in areas of high elevation than in the lowlands. In fact, the temperature inversions that affect the Mittelland tend to trap polluted air for weeks when cyclonic activity stagnates.
With the increase in winter tourism, the study of avalanches has developed as a branch of Alpine climatology, and in wintertime the research station near Davos releases daily avalanche bulletins as a warning for villagers and tourists. The Alpine cantons have about 10,000 avalanches annually, with about four-fifths of them occurring in February, March, and April. For centuries, village communes have relied on forests on the mountain slopes for protection from these slides, because a 20- to 30-year-old forest can inhibit or stop small avalanches. Villages, highways, and Alpine paths are also protected by costly artificial structures such as metal barriers, earthen walls, and concrete wedges and enclosures. Acid rain, however, has caused the illness and death of many trees in the mountain areas of Switzerland and poses a serious threat to their ability to act as barriers to avalanches. In the mountain forests, some two-fifths of the trees have been classified as damaged, sick, or dying.
- Plant and animal life
Vegetation in Switzerland is derived from that of the four European climatic regions that converge in the country and has been influenced by the varied relief. It includes the beeches and oaks of the maritime west; hornbeam and larch trees in the more continental east, predominantly in the Engadin and the dry Valais; extensive spruce forests in the northern subalpine region; and chestnut groves in the south. Differences in vegetation are evident in the Alpine valleys because of exposure to the sun. The vegetation boundaries are several hundred feet higher in the south of the country—for example, in Valais—than in the north because of the southern exposure. Alpine vegetation, similar to that of Arctic tundra, prevails above the tree line. It is very susceptible to erosion through skiing impacts and as a result of paths or four-wheel-drive trails cut into the slopes.
- ANIMAL LIFE
Switzerland’s animal life is primarily Alpine, but a mixture of species familiar to southern and north-central Europe is also found. Animal life is protected, except during a brief annual hunting season. Alpine tourists may observe marmots, which live in the high meadows, and chamois. Large herds of the round ibex, which had died out in the Swiss Alps and has since been reintroduced, populate several areas, especially in the Bernina region of Graubünden (canton) and in the Saastal of Valais. In the forests there are deer, rabbits, foxes, badgers, squirrels, and many varieties of birds, including eagles, while lake and river trout may be found but are no longer as abundant as in the past. Snakes and lizards are concentrated in the south, but insects, in great variety, are diffused throughout the country.
Demography of Switzerland
To survive as a cohesive unit and to protect the neutrality that has been their safeguard, the disparate elements of the Swiss people have had to learn a mutual cooperation. Their outlook has been shaped largely by economic and political necessity, which has made the Swiss public realistic, cautious, and prudent in accepting innovation and creative in the use of their resources. Switzerland’s human resource has been effectively educated and efficiently utilized to transform what was a predominantly mountainous, rural, and landlocked country with limited natural resources into one of the most diversified and important industrial and commercial countries in the world.
- Ethnic groups and languages
Most of the major cultural regions of western continental Europe—German, French, and Italian—come into contact in Switzerland. Thus, one of the country’s distinctive features is the variety of its languages. The Swiss constitution recognizes German, French, and Italian as official languages. Since 1996 Romansh (Rhaeto-Romance), a linguistic relic preserved in the mountainous regions between the Gotthard massif and the eastern Alps, has had official status at the federal level for communicating with Romansh-speaking persons (it had been designated as an official “national” language in 1938). At the beginning of the 21st century, more than three-fifths of the total population spoke German, one-fifth French, about one-twelfth Italian, and less than 1 percent Romansh. Nearly one-tenth of the population spoke a nonofficial language, with people of Croatian, Portuguese, Serbian, and Spanish descent most prevalent in this category. The country’s ethnic breakdown largely mirrors its linguistic divisions. Foreign residents make up about one-fifth of the country’s total population, and in some cantons the proportion is considerably higher. For example, in Geneva more than one-third of residents are foreigners. The foreign-born population in Switzerland increased substantially in the 1990s, when the country provided refuge to those fleeing the violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo.
Switzerland also exhibits considerable religious diversity. However, the distribution of religions does not coincide with that of languages, as the population shifts brought on by industrialization resulted in greater mixture of religions. Roman Catholics slightly outnumber Protestants, and there is a small but significant Muslim population—mainly of Turkish or Balkan origin—and a tiny Jewish community.
The constitution of 1874 guaranteed full religious liberty but repeated the 1848 constitution’s prohibition of settlement by Jesuits (members of the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus) and their affiliated societies. This anti-Jesuit article was repealed in a national referendum in 1973. In 2009 the passage of a referendum to outlaw the construction of minarets (towers that feature in the design of many mosques) highlighted widespread misgivings about the presence of Muslims in Switzerland. The minaret ban had been promoted by the conservative Swiss People’s Party.
Although religion has been pivotal in shaping the country, church attendance and religiosity have declined substantially; about two-fifths of Roman Catholics and one-half of Protestants attend church regularly. About one-eighth of Swiss citizens profess no religious affiliation, a figure that increased in the last decades of the 20th century.
- Settlement patterns
The diversity of geomorphology, climate, and plant distribution in Switzerland provides a wide variety of settlement sites, a variety further enhanced by the country’s central European location.
- RURAL COMMUNITIES
Rural settlements predominate in the valleys, where characteristic Alpine villages extend along the base of slopes. Since the creation of extensive river diversions, undertaken chiefly during the second half of the 19th century, many villages (e.g., in the Seeland between Lakes Neuchâtel and Biel) have expanded into valley plains, where intensive farming occurs. The isolation of portions of many valleys—such as those of the Rheinwald, Poschiavo, and Urseren—by barriers of resistant rock or by prehistoric landslides was an impetus to the formation of communes and of the early Alpine cooperatives.
The modern network of small but politically important communes stands out in the parallel relief of the Jura and the Alps, as the boundaries of the communes are generally drawn from one mountain crest to the next. Every commune has all the basic living requirements, including pasture, forest, fertile valley bottom, and water. Terraced slopes characterize the sites of villages that serve as bases for “Alpine nomadism,” the seasonal moving of livestock to or from the mountains. In the latter part of the 20th century, the intensity of this practice declined considerably.
Some villages, such as Guarda in the lower Engadin and Grimentz in the Val d’Anniviers of Valais, are renowned for their picturesque beauty, and others, such as Crans-Montana on the slopes above the Rhône valley in Valais canton and Wengen in the Berner Oberland, have developed into famous resorts. Places such as Bad Ragaz in the Rhine valley and Leukerbad in Valais canton are noted as spas. Valley forks, where the traffic from two valleys combines, were natural sites for settlement. Two of the best examples are Martigny (the Roman city of Octodurum), at the meeting of the Great Saint Bernard Pass route and the Rhône valley, and Chur, a more than 5,000-year-old city located where the Rhine connects with passes to the interior of the canton of Graubünden. In addition, settlements are found within the Alps, such as Amsteg on the Saint Gotthard Pass (Uri canton), Silvaplana, where the Julier Pass meets the Inn valley (the upper Engadin), and Gordola, at the junction of the Verzasca valley (Val Verzasca) and the Ticino River plain (near Locarno). In the Mittelland, with its abundant lakes, villages sited on deltas are especially closely related to the environment. In recent decades, towns have expanded toward each other and merged, creating population belts all along the lakes. Uncontrolled property speculation permitted many characteristic, substantial village settlements to spread into the surrounding areas with very little architectural or land-use planning. Owing to this sprawl, in 1979 the federal government introduced a law on spatial planning that attempted to control and structure the development of settlements.
- URBAN SETTLEMENTS
Some cities in Switzerland originally developed around monasteries (e.g., Sankt Gallen) or around Roman settlements (e.g., Zürich and Lausanne). Within the Alps of Vaud, Vevey and Montreux were sited on small deltas jutting into Lake Geneva that provided flat land near the mountainous north shore; in the Alps of Ticino, Locarno and Ascona developed on the delta of the Maggia River. Many settlements evolved from their distinct sites. For example, Fribourg (founded in 1157) and Bern (1191) were established at strategic river crossings. Fribourg was sited on a loop of the entrenched Sarine River where a key trade route crossed the river; Bern was located on the easily defended great bend of the Aare. Both developed distinctive central cores with unified urban architecture. Each Swiss city is geographically unique, particularly those lying at the head of a lake, such as Zürich, Geneva, and Lucerne (Luzern), which were essentially harbour towns until the opening of the railroads. Today all three benefit from the summer lake steamers that transport large numbers of tourists. Situated where, respectively, the Limmat, Rhône, and Reuss rivers drain the lakes, against backdrops of nearby sculpted Alpine peaks, Zurich, Geneva, and Lucerne combine local glacial topography with urban structures, including architecturally significant cathedrals, to form a composite landscape of nature and culture. Hill towns such as Regensberg and Gruyères, which were medieval fortified settlements with castles and distinctive late Gothic architecture, have a natural dominance over the local region that was significant at the time of their origin. Today both survive largely because tourists are attracted to their relatively unspoiled appearances.
In Switzerland, isolated from the rest of Europe by mountainous barriers, location in relation to traffic patterns has played an important role in urban development. The keys to a series of mountain passes are the towns of Chur (to the passes of San Bernardino, Julier, and Albula), Martigny (Great Saint Bernard), and Bellinzona (Saint Gotthard). Lugano was sited on a small delta south of which the Gotthard route crossed Lake Lugano on a glacial causeway. Basel’s location, first at a bridge crossing the Rhine and then at the head of modern Rhine navigation, has been of particular significance, since this was the basis of its early prominence as a city of scholars and bankers and of its present international importance as an industrial and transportation node. A number of cities are also important tourist destinations. Interlaken, on a delta that separates Thun and Brienz lakes, is the best-known example. Others include Geneva, Lucerne, Zürich, and Bern. In the mountains, Saint Moritz (Sankt Moritz), Zermatt, and Davos, all with vast areas of ski slopes and scores of lifts, are the most significant resorts. Switzerland’s largest cities are Zürich, Basel, Geneva, Bern, Lausanne, Winterthur, Sankt Gallen, and Lucerne.
- Demographic trends
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Switzerland has more than doubled, from about 3.3 million in 1900 to slightly more than 7 million at the turn of the 20th century. Growth was largest in the post-World War II period, when relatively high birth rates coincided with a period of high economic growth and immigration. Switzerland experienced significant immigration throughout the 20th century. While about one in eight Swiss residents were foreigners in 1900, this figure dropped to about 5 percent during World War II; since the 1950s, it has increased steadily, and, at the turn of the 21st century, about one in five people were foreigners.
Largely as a result of Switzerland’s relatively low birth rate (about half the world average), the country’s population grew only slightly during the last decades of the 20th century. Excellent medical coverage and a high standard of living have combined to give the Swiss among the highest average life expectancies in the world. Moreover, as in many industrialized countries, Switzerland’s population has grown increasingly older. For example, the proportion of the population under age 20 fell from about two-fifths at the beginning of the 20th century to slightly more than one-fifth at the beginning of the 21st century. In contrast, the percentage of the population over age 65 grew from about 6 percent to more than 15 percent in the same period, and it is anticipated that a growing elderly population will put severe strains on the country’s medical care system.
Economy of Switzerland
Switzerland’s economic development has been affected by specific physical and cultural geographic factors. In the first instance, the country has few raw materials; precipitation and soil quality largely determine the type and size of cultivation; urban and industrial expansion encroach on the limited amount of cultivable land; the commerce and transport sectors have benefited from Switzerland’s central location along international trade routes; and tourism has been boosted by the landscape’s exceptional scenic beauty, including glacial peaks and Alpine lakes. In the second instance, the inability of the country’s small domestic market to absorb the total output of a skilled and efficient population forced Switzerland to seek world markets. Thus, by importing raw materials and converting them into high-quality, high-value-added finished products for export, developing a highly organized and efficient transportation system and tourist industry, and establishing a free-market orientation, Switzerland generally has been able to keep unemployment low and inflation under control and has achieved among the world’s highest standards of living and per capita incomes.
The various physical and cultural factors also have given rise to the development of service industries such as shipping, banking, insurance, and tourism, as well as to exports such as chemicals, machines, precision instruments, and processed foods. The Swiss economy is characterized by industrial diversity and a lack of large firms. However, a number of Swiss enterprises—such as the food giant Nestlé and the pharmaceutical firm Novartis—have worldwide enterprises that employ far more people abroad than in Switzerland and sell most of their products in foreign markets. Foreign labourers constitute about one-fourth of the economically active population in Switzerland, and without their presence many sectors of the economy (e.g., hotels, restaurants, and tourism) would grind to a halt. Nonetheless, social tensions sometimes have been evident, particularly where foreigners were perceived to have threatened the Swiss way of life and to have displaced Swiss workers.
The long-standing tradition of direct democracy (more than half of the world’s national referenda have been held in the country) and federalism in Switzerland and the country’s heavy dependence on foreign trade have given rise to an equally traditional dislike of state intervention and to strong and constant support for worldwide free trade. Thus, with the exception of the post office, most utilities and important services are privately owned or municipal enterprises, in some cases subsidized by cantonal governments. Formerly federally owned and operated, the telephone network and the railways were privatized in the late 1990s.
Just as centralized bureaucracy was traditionally distrusted at home, the Swiss also have been apprehensive about economic integration with Europe. Although Switzerland negotiated a special arrangement in 1972 with the European Economic Community (later succeeded by the European Union [EU]), it has remained outside the EU, preferring instead membership in the more limited European Free Trade Association (EFTA). In reaction to the planned removal in the early 1990s of all barriers to the movement of people, goods, and services in the EU, EFTA negotiated with the EU the creation of a new trade bloc—the European Economic Area (EEA). In 1992, however, Swiss voters narrowly rejected membership in the EEA. The vote underscored differences between linguistic groups, as French Swiss largely voted in favour of the agreement while most German and Italian Swiss were opposed to it. Subsequently, the government negotiated bilateral agreements with the EU on most topics covered by the EEA treaty. In 2000 Swiss voters ratified the new agreement.
Linked economically with Switzerland, its smaller neighbour the Principality of Liechtenstein uses Swiss currency and enjoys the protection of the Swiss army. Nevertheless, Liechtenstein joined the EEA in 1995 (after modifying its customs union with Switzerland) and is also an individual member of EFTA.
- Agriculture and forestry
About one-third of Switzerland’s land is devoted to agricultural production (grains, fodder, vegetables, fruits, and vineyards) and pasture. Some of the pastureland is used exclusively for mountain pasture, including the Monte Rosa region. The variation in soil quality within small areas in Switzerland, produced by geologic conditions and by the relief, makes large-scale single-crop farming difficult; instead, a particularly varied assortment of crops are grown in a limited space. About two-thirds of all farms combine grass and grain cultivation, and the latter satisfies nearly four-fifths of domestic demand. On the western Mittelland a considerable grain-producing area has developed on the sheltered side of the Jura Mountains, an area of scanty rainfall, while in the more humid eastern region, mainly in the cantons of Thurgau and Sankt Gallen, fodder cultivation is combined with fruit growing. Until recently the highest Alpine grainfields, which have fallen victim to the decline in Alpine agriculture, lay above Zermatt at an elevation of 6,900 feet (2,100 metres). In Ticino, the southernmost canton, a mixed Mediterranean agriculture has been attained, although it has been endangered by urbanization. Viticulture characterizes slopes along many lakes, including Geneva, Neuchâtel, and Biel.
With its abundant sunshine and irrigation, the Valais, especially in the Rhône valley between Martigny and Sion, is noted for cultivating berries and other fruits and vegetables. The Valais also has the largest area of vineyards of any canton and the highest vineyard of central Europe, located near Visperterminen at an elevation of 3,900 feet (1,200 metres). Switzerland’s largest vineyards are on the southern-exposed shore of Lake Geneva, on the sun-facing slopes of the Rhône valley, along Lakes Neuchâtel and Biel at the foot of the Jura, and in the northern Alpine valley of the Rhine, which is affected by the foehn.
Practiced throughout the country but especially prominent in the Mittelland and pre-Alps, cattle raising is Switzerland’s primary agricultural pursuit, yielding products exported throughout Europe. The income from dairying and cattle raising amounts to more than two-thirds of all agricultural value. Products include milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, and milk for chocolate.
As a consequence of Switzerland’s economic isolation in World War II, the government provided significant subsidies for agriculture, including direct market interventions and price guarantees, to maintain a high level of domestic production. Owing to trade-liberalization policies enacted in the 1990s, however, Switzerland has modified its agricultural support system, replacing these policies with direct payments to the farmers as compensation for services in the public interest.
Since the importance of forests for the ecology of large areas was recognized early, an exemplary forestation law forbids reduction of woodlands, which amount to about one-third of the total area of the country. Forests are vital for watershed functions, support wildlife, are a source of mushrooms, protect against avalanches, and function as recreational areas near cities such as Zürich as well as in the mountains. Furthermore, a small forestry industry that practices selective cutting supplements the income of owners of the land. Because of air pollution, some one-fifth of the country’s forests have been classified as severely damaged.
- Resources and power
Although Switzerland has few natural resources (salt is the only mined resource) and lacks indigenous hydrocarbons to power its industries, high precipitation in the Alps, glaciated U-shaped valleys, the storage of glacial meltwaters behind giant dams, and the great range of elevations provide an ideal environment for the generation of hydroelectric power. The electrical industry has become an essential branch of the country’s economy, with nearly 45 reservoirs and a few hundred large hydroelectric power plants in operation. Numerous low-pressure plants are situated on the lower courses of the rivers in the Mittelland. Major electrotechnical progress has occurred in the Alps, where large systems of tunnels and subterranean powerhouses have been constructed in suitable valleys. Two of the highest dams in Europe have been erected high in the tributary valleys of the Rhône in Valais: Mauvoisin is 777 feet (237 metres) high, and Grande Dixence, at 935 feet (285 metres), has by far the largest-capacity reservoir in the country. Valais is the most important producer of hydroelectricity in Switzerland, with nearly one-third of installed capacity. It is also a major consumer because of the aluminum plants located in the valley of the Rhône. By the late 20th century, nearly all of the hydroelectric energy worth harnessing for power plants was being utilized. Overall, about three-fifths of Switzerland’s domestic energy production is provided by hydroelectricity, while more than one-third is furnished by nuclear plants. The country’s energy needs are also met by imported oil, which accounts for about half of Switzerland’s total energy consumption; nuclear and hydroelectric power represent about one-fourth and one-sixth of energy consumption, respectively.
Switzerland’s transformation into an industrial state began during the second half of the 19th century. The survival of Swiss industry is based on a formula that has worked very well: build specialized products such as motors, turbines, and watches; guarantee the delivery date; offer the necessary financing through an efficient banking network; provide effective after-sales service; sell the product all over the world and thus achieve economies of scale; and, where necessary, build local factories. The chemical-pharmaceutical industry, including the firms of Novartis, Ciba Specialty Chemicals, Clariant, and Roche Holdings (all with headquarters in Basel), is a good example of Swiss competitiveness. Like many Swiss industries, the chemical-pharmaceutical industry spends large sums of money on research and development. A number of firms collaborate with the country’s universities and with the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zürich and Lausanne.
Because of the single European market and world competition, Switzerland’s manufacturing sector underwent major restructuring in the 1990s that included mergers, the international expansion of Swiss firms, the sale of Swiss companies to foreign firms, the closing of low-value-added types of activity, and the upgrading of technology-based activities. Despite the trend toward larger companies, Swiss manufacturing is still characterized by diversity. Most firms are small or medium-sized; they are located throughout the country but especially in the Mittelland.
Switzerland’s major exports are machinery and equipment, chemical-pharmaceutical products, watches, and textiles and apparel. Raw materials, food, vegetable oils, and fuel account for about one-quarter of total imports and are transported by rail, truck, and barge. Among other leading imports are manufactured goods, motor vehicles, and chemical products.
Traditionally Switzerland has been among the forerunners in liberalizing and facilitating international trade, upon which its economy is heavily dependent. Most of Switzerland’s trade is with the EU, with about three-fourths of its imports coming from and three-fifths of its exports going to EU countries. Among its individual trading partners, Germany is its leading market, receiving more than one-fourth of Switzerland’s exports and providing about two-fifths of its imports. Other leading export markets include France, Italy, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Principal suppliers include France, Italy, the United States, and the Netherlands.
Switzerland’s official monetary unit is the Swiss franc, which is also used in Liechtenstein. A central location, political stability, and privacy laws—the Swiss Banking Law (1934) made it a criminal offense to divulge information about clients and their accounts without consent—have been key factors in making Switzerland one of the world’s most important financial centres. However, secrecy laws also encouraged organized-crime syndicates to establish accounts in Swiss banks, and this has prompted modification of Swiss banking laws to prevent abuse.
The banking system follows a two-tiered approach. One group (principally the larger banks) focuses primarily on private banking and possesses a strong international presence; the second group emphasizes national and regional banking and includes banks that are majority-owned by the cantons. The largest banks, United Bank of Switzerland (UBS; created in 1998 from the merger of the Union Bank of Switzerland and the Swiss Bank Corporation) and the Credit Suisse Group, are among the largest financial institutions in the world and have branches in major cities throughout the world. With globalization, features that were once unique to Swiss banks—discretion, reliability, and a high degree of professionalism—have been emulated by the world’s major financial institutions. In addition, the reduction in tensions that resulted from the end of the Cold War in the 1990s has made the safe-haven status afforded by Switzerland’s neutrality less relevant. Thus, during the 1990s there was a focus on increasing the efficiency of the banking sector, which underwent consolidations and restructuring. The banking industry endured a scandal during the mid-1990s, when it was revealed that Swiss banks were still holding long-dormant accounts belonging to victims of the Holocaust during World War II. In 2000, Credit Suisse and UBS agreed to pay 2 billion Swiss francs to international Jewish organizations to be shielded from lawsuits related to such accounts. Along with banking and other financial services, there is a large sector that specializes in insurance and reinsurance (which provides insurance for the insurance companies).
Tourism is a significant source of revenue for Switzerland, with receipts slightly outpacing expenditures by Swiss tourists abroad. Primary destinations for Swiss tourists include France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. Among the principal foreign visitors to Switzerland are Germans, who account for more than one-fourth, followed by Americans, Britons, and Japanese. A significant proportion of tourism receipts also come from residents of Switzerland.
During the Middle Ages healing spas such as Baden, Bad Pfäfers, Leukerbad, and Rheinfelden flourished, while mountain-pass hospices such as those on the Great Saint Bernard or the Furka were the predecessors of Alpine hotels. Since World War II, travel has increased at an explosive rate: hotels, guesthouses, and vacation apartments count millions of visitors each year, as do youth hostels and campgrounds. Efforts have been made with limited success to broaden the tourist season from the peak summer and winter periods in order to reduce congestion both in the resorts and on the highways. Nearly two-thirds of overnight stays are in the Alps and the Alpine foothills. The tourist industry as a whole employs more people than are engaged in farming and is heavily dependent on foreign labour. Apart from the traditionally important retail trade component of the service sector, business-related services are a fast-growing subsector, partly reflecting the outsourcing trend in the industry sector.
- Labour and taxation
Services, including retail, trade, banking, and insurance, employ some two-thirds of Swiss workers. In contrast, manufacturing employs fewer than one-fifth of the workforce, and only about 5 percent of workers are employed in agriculture. Switzerland’s unemployment rate is very low in comparison with most other countries, regularly standing at less than 5 percent. Switzerland has among the highest rates of female participation in the workforce in Europe.
Employer-employee relations have generally been good. The Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (Schweizerischer Gewerkschaftbund), founded in 1880 and linked with the Social Democratic Party, is a coalition of more than a dozen individual trade unions representing nearly 400,000 workers. Other major unions include the Swiss White-Collar Federation (Vereinigung Schweizerischer Angestelltenverbände) and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Christlichnationaler Gewerkschaftsbund). With about one-fifth of workers belonging to a trade union, Switzerland has among the lowest unionization rates in Europe. Since the Great Depression of the early 1930s, the unions have generally denounced the use of strikes as economic and political weapons, and disputes are usually settled by arbitration.
In matters of taxation, federal regulations extend mainly to customs duties, value-added tax, and a federal income tax. In general, income taxes, apart from the federal income tax, are cantonal responsibilities, and rates are fixed decisions of the voters of communal or cantonal parliaments. Although tax rates vary from canton to canton, Switzerland has among the lowest income and social-security tax rates in Europe.
- Transportation and telecommunications
Control of the most important Alpine passes and the ancient route through the Mittelland between the Rhône, Rhine, and Danube waterways has given Switzerland a key position in European transit traffic. Indeed, the main artery of European trans-Alpine traffic, the Saint Gotthard Pass, runs through Swiss territory.
The large-scale technical undertaking of modern highway construction was preceded by the building of the railway system, which has thousands of miles of track and includes hundreds of tunnels, among them the 12.5-mile (20-km) Simplon Tunnel and the famous winding tunnels of the Saint Gotthard railway, by means of which elevation differences between valley levels are overcome. At the turn of the 21st century the Swiss planned the construction of new Alpine railway tunnels that would follow deeper and more level routes than the older tunnels. In 2007 the Lötschberg base tunnel, at that time the world’s longest overland tunnel, opened; the rail link was 21.5 miles (34.6 km) long. Another project was a railway tunnel running well below the existing Saint Gotthard tunnels; once completed, this 35-mile (57-km) base tunnel would accommodate high-speed trains. Nearly all of the track in the Swiss railway system has been electrified. The Swiss Federal Railways, which constitute more than half of the system, are operated by the federal government, though in 1999 they began to function as a limited company. The remainder of the railways, including the numerous mountain railways, are distributed among scores of private railroads partially owned by the cantons and municipalities. The Vitznau-Rigi Bahn, built in 1871 as the world’s first cogwheel railway, achieved early fame. The highest cogwheel railway in the world tunnels within the Jungfrau, reaching the Jungfraujoch at more than 11,400 feet (3,500 metres). Regular main-line trains link the main Swiss cities. The airports of Zürich and Geneva have their own rail stations that connect with the Swiss network. The railways account for about one-sixth of passenger and nearly three-fifths of freight traffic.
Switzerland has among the highest numbers of automobiles per 1,000 inhabitants in Europe. Extensive use of cars has caused severe traffic and parking congestion. The network of main roads and motorways is packed, especially during the summer and winter tourist seasons, when hundreds of thousands of foreign automobiles pass through Switzerland daily. Three Alpine tunnels have been built: the Great Saint Bernard connects Valais with Valle d’Aosta in Italy; the 10-mile- (15-km-) long Saint Gotthard links Göschenen and Airolo under the Saint Gotthard Pass; and the San Bernardino binds the cantons of Graubünden and Ticino. The dense traffic, especially in the Alpine valleys, is responsible for serious air and noise pollution.
Since World War II, Switzerland has also maintained its own small “oceangoing fleet” of merchant ships (i.e., Swiss-owned ships that sail on the high seas). Regular service is provided on several lakes by more than 100 vessels, which include some paddle wheelers. In addition, the steamers cruising on several lakes in the summer are very popular.
Swissair, established in 1931 as the national airline, ranked among the world’s major commercial carriers until financial weakness caused it to stop flying in 2002. Much of Swissair’s extensive worldwide operations were sold off to other airlines or taken over by Crossair, a former regional unit of Swissair that was later renamed Swiss International Air Lines (generally known simply as Swiss). The main airports are in Zürich (Kloten) and Geneva (Cointrin). Bern (Belpmoos) and Lugano (Agno) have international flights and a few domestic flights, and Mulhouse in France is used by Basel.
The telecommunications sector was long dominated by Telecom PTT (renamed Swisscom in 1997), which enjoyed a legal government monopoly. However, during the late 1990s Swisscom, which is still partly government owned, lost its monopoly, and the sector was liberalized and opened to free competition. The telecommunications sector, regulated by the Swiss Federal Office of Communications and the Federal Communications Commission, expanded rapidly at the end of the 1990s, with more than 100 new companies entering the market. Among the leading companies are Sunrise and Cablecom. Internet use also grew dramatically during the 1990s and early 21st century.
Government and Society of Switzerland
- Constitutional framework
Switzerland’s constitution (modeled after that of the United States) was adopted in 1848 and substantially revised in 1874. A thoroughly revised constitution, approved by three-fifths of voters, entered into force in 2000, though the changes were mainly formal, with little alteration to the structure of Switzerland’s government. Because the old constitution had become immethodical and difficult to understand, the new constitution coherently incorporated the multitude of amendments passed in the previous 125 years. Switzerland’s constitution contains some 200 articles, which establish the rights and duties of the citizens and of the governing bodies. It also created what has been termed a consociational democracy, which attempts to maintain political balance and stability, given the country’s linguistic and religious diversity.
The federal government supervises external and internal security, transportation affairs, forestry, and water conservation. It also is responsible for foreign policy and customs, the monetary system, the military, and social insurance programs. It has the authority to take steps to adjust the course of the economy and provide for uniform administration of justice in the areas of criminal and civil law.
Legislative power resides in the bicameral Federal Assembly, comprising the National Council, with 200 deputies elected by a system of proportional representation for four-year terms, and the Council of States, in which each canton is represented by two deputies and each demicanton by one deputy (46 deputies in total). The executive branch is headed by the Federal Council, a seven-member collegial board. The presidency of the Federal Council rotates among the members annually, and each councillor presides over a federal department. The governments of other countries often have 20 or more ministers, and because of the Federal Council’s increasing workload (domestic responsibilities coupled with Switzerland’s burgeoning international commitments), there has been considerable debate about enlarging the Council or adding another level of ministers between the Federal Council and the Federal Assembly. However, Swiss voters, who would have to approve this restructuring, are fairly cautious about making such constitutional changes, especially those that might upset the very subtle balance between the different language groups.
One of the unique aspects of Switzerland’s constitution is the number of decisions it requires citizens to make through referenda and initiatives. Sovereign power ultimately rests with the people, who vote on proposed legislation several times a year at the national level and often more frequently in the cantons; indeed, Switzerland has held more than half of the world’s national referenda. For example, in 1971 the constitution was amended by national referendum to grant women the right to vote in federal elections and to hold federal office, in 1991 the voting age in federal elections was reduced from 20 to 18 years, and in 2002 voters endorsed entry into the United Nations (UN). Referenda must be held on constitutional matters and major international treaties; voters may also call a referendum to challenge a law passed by the Federal Assembly by obtaining 50,000 signatures within 100 days of passage. For a referendum to pass, it must receive an overall majority both of the national vote and in a majority of the cantons. In addition to referenda, Swiss citizens can call a national vote on any issue by collecting 100,000 signatures. The first such initiative was undertaken in 1893, when voters decided against the wishes of the parliament and endorsed the prohibition of the killing of animals according to Jewish religious methods. More recently, voters have cast ballots on whether to join the European Economic Area (rejected), eliminate the Swiss army (rejected), reduce military spending (rejected), limit the foreign population of the country (rejected), conserve moorland (approved), and require that trucks passing through the country be put on railroad flatbeds (approved). The Swiss model has provided citizens with a direct voice in their own affairs that is without parallel in any other country, but it has sometimes been criticized on various grounds: voter turnout is often very low, averaging about two-fifths of the electorate; it often makes the passage of important legislation difficult (e.g., the parliament passed a law granting women the right to vote in 1959, but voters did not approve the change at the federal level until 12 years later); and it raises the prospect that the rights of minority groups can be undermined by a majority of the population, though Swiss voters in practice have generally respected the rights of minorities.
- Cantonal and local government
The Swiss Confederation is divided into 26 cantons (including six demicantons, or Halbkantone, which function as full cantons), each of which has its own constitution and assembly. The cantons exercise broad authority, possessing all powers not specifically given to the federal government. Education and health policies are largely determined at the cantonal level. While historically several cantons had a Landsgemeinde, only Appenzell Inner-Rhoden and Glarus maintain this traditional assembly consisting of all the canton’s citizens that meets annually and serves as the canton’s primary decision-making body.
The Swiss Confederation consists of some 3,000 communes, which are responsible for public utilities and roads and, like the cantons, are largely autonomous. Communes range in size from Bagnes in Valais, with an area of 109 square miles (282 square km), to Ponte Tresa in Ticino, with an area of 0.1 square mile (0.3 square km). They also vary considerably in population; many have only several hundred residents, while the commune of Zürich has more than 350,000 residents. From the multiplicity of small communal republics stem a special quality to each and, paradoxically, a basis of national unity, for each citizen treasures and supports the freedom of the commune, a shared conviction that unites a citizen with the rest of the population in a way that transcends differences of language and of party. It is the communes rather than the country that grant Swiss citizenship.
The Swiss Civil Code of 1912 has furnished a model for the administration of justice in many countries; indeed, parts of the code have been adopted verbatim in other legal systems. The difficult task of creating and preserving a uniform judicial system within so diverse a national structure has produced a number of great jurists and experts of international law. Each canton elects and maintains its own magistracy for ordinary civil and criminal trials. Supreme judicial power is vested in the Federal Supreme Court (Bundesgericht), the seat of which is in Lausanne. Members of the court are elected by the Federal Assembly to six-year terms. Capital punishment was abolished—except under circumstances of martial law, general mobilization, or war—by the unified federal penal code of 1937.
- Political process
All citizens at least age 18 are permitted to vote; however, Switzerland has among the lowest levels of voter participation among long-established democracies. From the 1950s into the early 21st century, Switzerland’s government was formed by a grand coalition of four parties—the Radical Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Christian Democratic People’s Party, and the Swiss People’s Party (Centre Democratic Union). These parties have combined to retain comfortable majorities in the National Council (often winning more than four-fifths of the seats) and generally have contributed all the members of the Council of States. Members of the Federal Council, with its rotating presidency, are selected with the intent of providing equitable political, religious, and linguistic representation. Despite its long tenure, the coalition was beset by increasing internal conflicts at the end of the 20th century. The Swiss People’s Party, which had held one seat on the Federal Council since the 1950s, adopted positions that were considered by some to be antiforeigner and anti-European; it became the largest party in the Federal Assembly in 2003 and was awarded an additional seat on the Federal Council. In 2007 the Swiss People’s Party withdrew from the grand coalition. This end to nearly a half century of consensus government was only temporary, however: a year later, a member of the far-right party regained a seat on the Federal Council.
Although denied voting rights at the federal level until the 1970s, women are now fully engaged in politics and regularly constitute about one-fifth of the representatives in the Federal Assembly. Ruth Dreifuss was the first woman to serve as president, holding the office in 1999.
Policing is generally the responsibility of the cantons, though larger cities also maintain municipal police forces. A small federal police corps enforces special federal laws concerning such crimes as treason and forgery (mainly in collaboration with cantonal police). There has been considerable debate about increasing the scope and size of the federal police to combat crimes that transcend cantonal boundaries, but such a change would require the agreement of the cantonal governments.
In accordance with Switzerland’s neutrality, which dates from the 16th century and in 1815 became international law, the army serves solely to preserve the country’s independence. Defense is based on a system of universal conscription under which every Swiss male begins performing military duty at age 20 as a member of the national militia and remains active until age 42; officers remain active until age 52. The training of recruits is followed by 10 three-week refresher courses. Swiss women may serve as volunteers in the women’s military force. Unlike soldiers in other countries, Swiss soldiers keep their equipment, including arms and ammunition, at home and perform obligatory gunnery duty each year in civilian clothes, a manifestation of the extraordinary degree of trust between citizen and government.
Although deeply rooted in Swiss history, both the militia system and neutrality were increasingly questioned at the end of the 20th century. For example, in 1989 more than one-third of the electorate (including majorities in Jura and Geneva) voted in favour of abolishing the army, and neutrality—once a fully convincing concept for a small country surrounded by conflicting powers—has lost much of its justification in the geopolitical situation of the beginning of the 21st century. Thus, Swiss voters, who had overwhelmingly rejected entry into the UN in the mid-1980s as a violation of the tradition of neutrality, endorsed entry in 2002.
- Health and welfare
Public welfare services in Switzerland have evolved in a way typical of federalism, developing first in the communes, then in the cantons, and later in the confederation. Social welfare support is primarily a communal task, sometimes in cooperation with the cantons. Social insurance, which had existed in some communes, was introduced at the federal level by a series of constitutional amendments, the most important of which was compulsory social-security insurance (introduced in 1948). Financed through the contributions of workers and their employers, as well as smaller contributions from the cantons and the confederation, social-security insurance provides annuities and pension allowances to senior citizens (men over 65 and women over 62) and to widows, orphans, and invalids. Because this legislation did not cover the cost of living, a system of mandatory occupational pensions was later introduced, financed by both employers and employees. In 1985 a voluntary employee-funded private pension plan was established, encouraged by tax incentives.
Unemployment insurance is federal, financed by contributions from employees and employers. Health insurance is compulsory; though a legal framework has been established on the federal level, the health system is largely organized along cantonal lines, and health contributions vary considerably between cantons. The Swiss Confederation and the cantons together finance additional support for the destitute out of general revenues. Overall, the level of social welfare spending is substantial, accounting for more than one-fourth of total expenditures, and care and services are among the best in the world.
Drug use is considered an important health problem, with many youths regularly using marijuana and other drugs. To resolve drug-related issues, Switzerland adopted a unique approach, controlling drug delivery to the severely addicted without legalizing drugs. The strategy has resulted in better care for addicts, a reduction in the drug-abuse rate, and an increase in public safety.
Because of its distinct cultural differences, Switzerland provides varied examples of geographic settlement patterns, with traditional housing types differing from one region to another. For example, smooth stone houses are typical in the Engadin, small stone buildings in Ticino, the combination house and barn in the Mittelland, the distinctive shingled facades in Appenzell, and the wooden villages of the valleys of Valais canton.
The housing stock in Switzerland is relatively modern, with more than two-thirds built since 1947. Despite the country’s high population density, dwellings are fairly large; about one-fourth of homes have more than five rooms. With about one-third of all dwellings owner occupied, Switzerland has among the lowest home ownership rates in Europe. This low figure is partially the result of the country’s high population density and scarce land, which has inflated the value of land, combined with an unequal income distribution—factors that have made it impossible for a majority of the population to acquire a dwelling.
Switzerland’s 1874 constitution gave sovereignty over education to each canton or demicanton. Elementary education is free and compulsory between the ages of 7 and 16. The confederation provides financial assistance for vocational training and the cantonal universities, regulates examinations for the professions, and influences the curriculum of the secondary schools. The only institutions of higher education maintained by the confederation itself are the Federal Institutes of Technology at Zürich (founded 1855) and Lausanne (founded 1853 and federalized 1969). Among the country’s most prominent institutions are the Universities of Basel (founded 1460), Bern (established as a seminary in 1528 and as a university in 1834), Geneva (founded 1559), Lausanne (founded 1537), and Zürich (founded 1833). The interior department in Bern administers education, and there is an education department in every canton.
The combination of an Alpine landscape, the pedagogic reputation of educational theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and Jean Piaget, and the multicultural nature of the country has prompted many private schools, at all levels, to locate in Switzerland.
Culture Life of Switzerland
History of Switzerland
Emergence of the Swiss Nation
In 58 B.C. the Helvetii who inhabited the country (see Helvetia) were conquered by the Romans. Invaded (5th cent. A.D.) by the Alemanni and by the Burgundii, the area passed to the Franks in the 6th cent. Divided (9th cent.) between Swabia and Transjurane Burgundy, it was united (1033) under the Holy Roman Empire. The expanding feudal houses, notably Zähringen and Kyburg, were supplanted (13th cent.) by the houses of Hapsburg and of Savoy. Hapsburg encroachments on the privileges of the three mountainous localities of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden resulted in the conclusion (1291) of a defensive league among them. The legendary hero of this event is William Tell. The league triumphed at Morgarten (1315) and, joined by Lucerne, Zürich, Zug, Glarus, and Bern, decisively defeated the Hapsburgs at Sempach (1386) and Näfels (1388).
In the 15th cent. the Swiss league rose to the first rank as a military power. The conquest of Aargau, Thurgau, and the valleys of Ticino, which were ruled as subject territories until 1798, was followed by Swiss victories over Charles the Bold of Burgundy (1476–77) and over Emperor Maximilian I, who in 1499 granted Switzerland virtual independence. By 1513, the admission to the confederation of Fribourg, Solothurn, Basel, Schaffhausen, and Appenzell had raised the number of cantons to 13, and this number was maintained until 1798. The conquest by Bern of Vaud from Savoy (1536), and close alliances with the Grisons, Geneva, St. Gall, and other towns and regions, further increased the Swiss orbit, but Switzerland's importance as a European power was broken in 1515 when the French defeated the Swiss at Marignano (see also Italian Wars).
A "perpetual alliance" with France (1516) and neutrality became the basis of Swiss policy. Swiss mercenaries, however, continued to serve abroad for three centuries (see Swiss Guards). The cantons, loosely bound by a federal diet and by individual treaties and often torn by internal feuds, were seriously split by the Reformation, preached by Zwingli at Zürich and by Calvin at Geneva. The Catholics, led by the Four Forest Cantons, defeated the Protestants in battle; the Treaty of Kappel (1531) preserved Catholicism in Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug, Fribourg, and Solothurn. National unity almost disappeared for more than two centuries, but religious divisions did not prevent the Swiss (except the Grisons) from remaining neutral throughout the Thirty Years War. Switzerland was an island of prosperity when, in 1648, at the end of the war, its formal independence was recognized in the Peace of Westphalia.
- Internal Conflict and Consolidation
In the following century and a half, government in many cantons became the exclusive business of a small oligarchy. While Switzerland became insignificant politically in the 18th cent., its wealth steadily increased, and its scientists and writers (von Haller, von Mühler, Pestalozzi, Rousseau) made it an intellectual center. The Swiss oligarchies strongly opposed the French Revolution. Invading French armies established the Helvetic Republic (1798–1803) and in 1799 clashed with Austrian and Russian forces. Napoleon's Act of Mediation (1803) partially restored the old confederation, and, at the Congress of Vienna, the Pact of Restoration (1815) substantially reestablished the old regime, except that the confirmation of nine new cantons brought the total to its present number.
By the Treaty of Paris (1815), Swiss neutrality was guaranteed for all time. A subsequent economic depression, which caused large-scale emigration to North and South America, and generally reactionary rule contributed to widely successful demands for revision of the cantonal constitutions and the rise of the Radical party, which favored greater centralization. Opposition to centralization centered in the Catholic rural cantons, which in 1845 formed the Sonderbund, a defensive alliance. After a brief and almost bloodless civil war (1847) the victorious Radicals transformed the confederation into one federal state under a new constitution adopted in 1848 (and recast in 1874). National unity grew, and much socialist legislation (such as railroad nationalization and social insurance) was enacted.
Armed neutrality was maintained throughout World Wars I and II. Switzerland was a member of the League of Nations, and although it has long participated in many activities of the United Nations, it did not become a UN member until 2002 for fear that its neutrality would be compromised. From 1959 Switzerland was governed by a four-party coalition that began as a center-right coalition and subsequently became a broader grouping. Also in 1959 Switzerland became a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA); in 1972 it signed an industrial free-trade agreement with the European Community (EC; since 1993 the European Union).
In the 1950s, French-speaking inhabitants of the Jura region of Bern canton unsuccessfully demanded, with some violence, the creation of a Jura canton. In 1977 a constitution was accepted, and in 1979 it officially became the twenty-third canton of the Swiss Confederation. In 1971, after a referendum was passed by male voters, women were given the right to vote and be elected at the federal level; subsequently, Elisabeth Kopp of the Radical Democratic party became the first woman government minister (1984–88).
In a 1986 plebiscite, a parliamentary proposal to join the United Nations was rejected by Swiss voters. In 1992, Swiss voters also rejected participation in the European Economic Area, an EFTA-EC common market, but did approve joining the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The rejection of the European Economic Area led to negotiations that resulted in a package of accords that established closer economic links with the European Union; voters approved the agreements in 2000.
Following charges that stolen assets deposited in Swiss banks by Nazis during World War II had not been properly returned, the country's two largest banks agreed in 1998 to pay $1.25 billion to the families of Holocaust victims; the banks had been facing lawsuits in the United States and were under international political pressure. Ruth Dreifuss, Switzerland's first woman president, served in the annually rotated post during 1999. In elections in 1999, the right-wing, nationalist People's party made sizable gains; this was regarded in part as a reaction to international criticism of Switzerland's role in World War II
Despite the turn to the right, Swiss voters in 2002 approved joining the United Nations, becoming the one of the last nations to seek membership in that organization (only Vatican City is not a member). In the 2003 and 2007 elections the People's party made further gains, becoming the largest party in the national council. In 2011 the People's party again won the largest share of the vote, but it was less than in 2007.
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