Switzerland -- Geography --
Official Name: Swiss Confederation
Capital City: Bern
Languages: German, French, Italian, Romansch
Official Currency: Swiss Franc
Religions: Catholic, Protestant, others
Population: 7 554 661 (2008)
Land Area: 39 770 sq km
Landforms: Mountains cover 60% of the land area with ranges of the in the south and the in the north. Between the mountains there's a hilly, central plateau.
Land Divisions: 26 cantons, including: Aargau, Appenzell Ausser-Rhoden, Appenzell Inner-Rhoden, Basel-Landschaft, Basel-Stadt, Bern, Fribourg, Geneve, Glarus, Graubunden, Jura, Luzern, Neuchatel, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Sankt Gallen, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Solothurn, Thurgau, Ticino, Uri, Valais, Vaud, Zug, Zurich
Switzerland -- History --
The territory of today’s Switzerland was populated with Celtic tribes around 500 BC. One of these tribes – the Helvetians – gave the name of the today’s country - Confoederatio Helvetica, or Swiss Confederation.
In 58 BC Julius Caesar defeated the Helvetians, and Switzerland was occupied by Roman troops. They continued to control the territory until about 400 AD. During this period many military forts were built. Many of the today’s Swiss towns originated as Roman forts - Basel, Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne and Chur.
After the withdrawal of the Roman forces in the Vth century, Switzerland was gradually occupied by the Frankish tribe of the Burgundians and the Germanic tribe of the Alemans (or Alemannen). The nowadays border between the French speaking (west) and the German speaking parts (north) of Switzerland is actually the border between the Burgundians’ and the Alemans’ territories. There are two other official languages in the country – Italian and Romansh.
From the XIth on the XIIth century the trade routes over the Alps gained in importance. New roads were built, and new towns founded. This increased importance also increased the appetites of some neighbouring countries, especially Austria, for the Swiss territory. That is why in 1291 the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden swore to help defend each other from the Habsburg threat. Several Austrian attempts to conquer these cantons by force were repelled. This is how the legend of William Tell originated. This period, 1291-1515 is known as the Old Swiss Confederacy.
During the Reformation (1523 – 1536) Huldrych Zwingli and Johannes (John) Calvin worked in Switzerland. During that time the country was split into two fractions Protestant and Catholic.
During the Enlightenment in the XVIII-XIX century the French liberal ideas found supporters in western Switzerland. Several western cantons revolted against the system of the Old Confederacy, which favoured some cantons at the expense of others. The rebels called for French help, which led to the occupation of Switzerland by Napoleon in 1798. A centralistic model of government was introduced (the Helvetic republic). However, this was soon ended by a civil war in 1802. Switzerland again became confederacy, however with equal rights for the member cantons.
In 1848 a new Constitution was adopted, whose principles are still valid today. According to it Switzerland is a Confederacy with 25 (today 26) cantons, two-chamber federal parliament, cantonal parliaments, strict division between federal and cantonal prerogatives. In the following years some unique Swiss political instruments were developed – the so-called “direct democracy” with frequent referendums (usually 5-6 a year). In 1862 the Swiss government organised a conference in Geneva, at which the so-called Geneva conventions were signed and the International Committee of the Red Cross was founded.
Switzerland remained neutral during both World Wars. After World War II Switzerland history is marked by political stability, economic growth (mainly due to its pharmaceutical industry and financial institutions) and increased international cooperation. Although not a member of the EU, Switzerland participates in many of the EU programmes, especially those related to science and research. For example, it hosts the European Nuclear Research Center. Member of the UN since 2002.
Switzerland -- Economy --
Switzerland is a prosperous and stable modern market economy, with a per capita GDP that is higher than those of the big western European economies. For much of the 20th century, Switzerland was the wealthiest country in Europe by a considerable margin. However, since the early 1990s it has suffered from slow growth and, as of 2005, fell to fourth among European states with populations above one million in terms of Gross Domestic Product per capita at purchasing power parity, behind Ireland, Denmark and Norway. Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association.
In recent years, the Swiss have brought their economic practices largely into conformity with those of the European Union, in an effort to enhance their international competitiveness, but this has not produced strong growth. Full EU membership is a long-term objective of the Swiss government, but there is considerable popular sentiment against this. To this end, it has established an Integration Office under the Department of Foreign and Economic Affairs. To minimise the negative consequences of Switzerland's isolation from the rest of Europe, Bern and Brussels signed seven agreements, called bilateral agreements, to further liberalise trade ties. These agreements were signed in 1999 and took effect in 2001. This first series of bilateral agreements included the free movement of persons. A second series covering nine areas was signed in 2004 and awaits ratification. The second series includes the Schengen treaty and the Dublin Convention. They continue to discuss further areas for cooperation. Preparatory discussions are being opened on four new areas: opening up the electricity market, participation in the European GPS system Galileo, cooperating with the European centre for disease prevention and recognising certificates of origin for food products. Switzerland voted against membership in the European Economic Area in December 1992 and has since maintained and developed its relationships with the European Union and European countries through bilateral agreements. A full report on the potential advantages and inconveniences of full EU membership is expected to be published in June 2006 by the Department of Foreign affairs. EU membership supporters hope this report could help reopen the internal debate, which has been dormant since March 2001, when the Swiss people refused in a popular vote to start accession negotiations with the EU.
Switzerland -- Culture --
The culture of Switzerland is influenced by its neighbours, but over the years a distinctive culture with strong regional differences has developed.
A number of culturally active Swiss have chosen to move abroad, probably given the limited opportunities in their homeland. At the same time, the neutrality of Switzerland and the low taxes have attracted many creative people from all over the world. In war times the tradition of political asylum helped to attract artists, whilst recently low taxes seem predominant.
Strong regionalism in Switzerland makes it difficult to speak of a homogeneous Swiss culture. The influence of German, French and Italian culture on their neighbouring parts and the influence of Anglo-American culture cannot be denied. The Rhaeto-Romanic culture in the eastern mountains of Switzerland is robust.
Switzerland -- Political system, law and government --
The bicameral Swiss parliament, the Federal Assembly, is the primary seat of power, apart from the Federal Council. Both houses, the Council of States and the National Council, have equal powers in all respects, including the right to introduce legislation.
Under the 1999 constitution, cantons hold all powers not specifically delegated to the federation.
The 46 members of the Council of States (two from each canton and one from former half cantons) are directly elected in each canton, whereas the 200 members of the National Council are elected directly under a system of proportional representation. Members of both houses serve for 4 years. Through referenda, citizens may challenge any law voted by federal parliament and through initiatives introduce amendments to the federal constitution, making Switzerland a direct democracy.
The top executive body and collective Head of State is the Federal Council, a collegial body of seven members. Although the constitution provides that the Assembly elects and supervises the members of the Council, the latter (and its administration) has gradually assumed a pre-eminent role in directing the legislative process as well as executing federal laws. The President of the Confederation is elected from the seven to assume special representative functions for a one-year term.
From 1959 to December 2003, the four major parties were represented in the Federal Council according to the "magic formula", proportional to their representation in federal parliament: 2 Christian Democrats (CVP/PDC), 2 from the Social Democrats (SPS/PSS), 2 Free Democrats (FDP/PRD), and 1 from the Swiss People's Party (SVP/UDC). This traditional distribution of seats, however, is not backed up by any law, and in the 2003 elections to the Federal Council the CVP/PDC lost their second seat to the SVP/UDC.
The function of the Federal Supreme Court is to hear appeals of cantonal courts or the administrative rulings of the federal administration. The judges are elected by the Federal Assembly for six-year terms.
Switzerland features a system of government not seen at the national level on any other place on Earth: direct democracy, sometimes called half-direct democracy (this could, or could not be correct as theoretically, one could state that the people have full power over the law). Referenda on the most important laws have been used since the 1848 constitution.
Any citizen may challenge a law that has been passed by parliament. If he is able to gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days, a national vote has to be scheduled where voters decide by a simple majority whether to accept or reject the law.
Also, any citizen may seek a decision on an amendment they want to make to the constitution. For such an amendment initiative to be organised, the signatures of 100,000 voters must be collected within 18 months. Such a popular initiative may be formulated as a general proposal or - much more often - be put forward as a precise new text whose wording can no longer be changed by parliament and the government. After a successful vote gathering, the federal council may create a counterproposal to the proposed amendment and put it to vote on the same day. Such counterproposals are usually a compromise between the status quo and the wording of the initiative. Voters will again decide in a national vote whether to accept the initiative amendment, the counterproposal put forward by the government or both. If both are accepted, one has to additionally signal a preference. Initiatives have to be accepted by a double majority of both the popular votes and a majority of the states.
On May 18, 2003, two referenda regarding the future of nuclear power in Switzerland were held. The referendum Electricity Without Nuclear asked for a decision on a nuclear power phase-out and Moratorium Plus asked about an extension an existing law forbidding the building of new nuclear power plants. Both were turned down: Moratorium Plus by a margin of 41.6% for and 58.4% opposed, and Electricity Without Nuclear by a margin of 33.7% for and 66.3% opposed. The former ten-year moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants was the result of a citizens' initiative voted on in 1990 which had passed with 54.5% Yes vs. 45.5% No votes.
The energy generated in Switzerland comprises around 40 percent nuclear power and 60 percent from hydroelectricity.