Switzerland: The Importance of Being Pragmatic

The Importance of Being Pragmatic
Without federalism, it has been argued, there would be no Switzerland.
The country is too diverse in various regards to have survived, had its
politics not been so organized. The role of federalism in contemporary
Swiss foreign relations is a test case for this argument. The cantons’ foreign
policy, the cantons’ participation in the confederation’s foreign policy, and
the municipalities’ cross-border cooperation have become topical and
sensitive issues, especially as they regard Swiss integration in Europe.
These issues require politicians at all levels of government in Switzerland
to demonstrate pragmatism in the conduct of foreign relations. Without
the flexibility and reciprocity that have so far enabled federalism to meet
the country’s different concerns, Swiss foreign policy may prove to be a
source of serious dissatisfaction.
The forces of globalization and internationalization have led in
Switzerland, as elsewhere, to wider and deeper external relations on different
levels, among various actors, regarding a range of concerns.
Although Swiss citizens expect the state to intermediate these relations,
they show little interest in federal concepts such as the division of powers
and intergovernmentalism. They are more concerned about the demo-
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40 Daniel Thürer / Malcolm Maclaren
cratic basis and real effectiveness of state policies: Swiss citizens expect
to participate in and benefit from external relations at all three levels of
The changed circumstances in which foreign relations are conducted
were partly responsible for the revision of the Federal Constitution of
Switzerland in 1999. In the first paragraph of the
section concerning authority in this area, the
new Constitution provides that “foreign relations
are a federal matter” (Article 54(1)). At the same
time, the cantons’ concerns about and openness
to foreign relations are acknowledged in the
Constitution. Specifically, Article 54(3) states
that the confederation in its dealings is to take
the powers of the cantons into consideration and
to protect their interests; Article 55 requires the
participation of the cantons in foreign policy
decisions of the confederation that affect them,
including those regarding the European Union;
and Article 56 allows the cantons to pursue their own relations with lowerranking
foreign authorities in conformity with the interests of other cantons
and the confederation. These provisions are to be applied in keeping
with the long-standing Swiss principles of subsidiarity and cooperative
federalism, as well as mutual respect and support in governance.
How have the three levels of Swiss government responded to this new
political and constitutional context for foreign relations? What have been
the effects, and what are the risks?
The Constitution presumes that the confederation will take the lead in
and be ultimately responsible for the conduct of foreign relations. In
filling this role, the Confederation has so far shown considerable respect
for the cantons’ powers and interests. It has given the cantons leeway in
their direct dealings with foreign authorities, recognizing that their concerns
may be better dealt with thereby. In keeping with the principle of
cooperative federalism, the confederation has also informed, consulted,
and where appropriate, allowed the cantons to participate in international
negotiations. It has recognized that engagement of the cantons contributes
not only to the implementation of international agreements but also
to the quality of its policy positions and to the approval of proposals submitted
to popular vote. The potential for problems in relations between
the confederation and the cantons in this area does not so much lie in the
levels of government speaking on the same matter with different voices.
Instead, provision for extensive cantonal participation in the confederation’s
foreign policy risks preventing the confederation from reacting
quickly enough to developments internationally, especially if the responsible
cantonal personnel are not “up to speed”.
Without the flexibility
and reciprocity
that have so far
enabled federalism
to meet the country’s
different concerns,
Swiss foreign
policy may prove to
be a source of serious
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Switzerland 41
For their part, the cantons have tried to make good use of their constitutional
power to act internationally, a power arguably unrivalled by subnational
units elsewhere. The 16 cantons that border on foreign countries
have in particular engaged in external affairs, pursuing a “minor foreign
policy” in areas such as culture, energy, and tourism. The cantons have also
pressed the confederation for increased participation in foreign policy
decisions, and they set up the Conference of Cantonal Governments
(CCG) in order to present their common positions. The success of these
efforts depends, however, on the engagement of the individuals in the cantonal
department concerned. The democratic legitimacy of the cantons’
involvement in foreign policy has been questioned, as the CCG is not provided
for constitutionally and is little known by the public. This situation
raises the questions whether formal provision should be made to recognize
the CCG and whether more than the cantonal executives should be
involved in its operation, and if so, per what mechanism?
The municipalities’ cross-border cooperation has contributed to the
denser networks between Switzerland and foreign countries. In particular,
Swiss cities and communes have also engaged in European integration
policy, pursuing transport, sewage, and other everyday projects with their
neighbours between administrations. Although such projects have become
increasingly popular among municipal representatives, most notably in
the Rhine and Lake Constance regions, citizens remain sceptical about the
value of cross-border cooperation and must be persuaded that it is not a
waste of their taxes. Municipalities must also be careful not to exceed their
authority: just as they expect their efforts at cross-border cooperation not
to be unduly hindered by the confederation and cantons, they must heed
the laws and interests of the other levels of government.
If, as argued, globalization and internationalization are posing a general
challenge to the conduct of foreign relations in the Swiss federation, the
country’s integration in Europe is doing so in particular. This complex
relationship involves the powers and essential interests of all levels of
government, cuts across various institutions and mechanisms, and most
importantly, can provoke starkly divergent policies. Federalism could
thereby become an obstacle to Swiss cooperation in Europe or beyond.
Conversely, the changed circumstances in which foreign relations are conducted
might spur the three levels of government in Switzerland to be
more innovative and resourceful in their approach to federalism. One-ofa-
kind rules and gentleman’s agreements might be developed that handle
concerns in ways that are not strictly constitutional but that are functionally
effective. The outcome could be foreign policy that is more effective
and more expressive of citizens’ wishes. A stronger, and not a weaker, Swiss
political community would be the end result.
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