Nicholas Schmitt: “Federalism has allowed for the preservation of a functional and prosperous multi-ethnic state, without any tendency towards secessionism”

9 October 2012, 14:53

The Swiss social model has hardly changed for centuries. A mountainous country that is home to several ethnic communities, Switzerland preserved peace in times when the flames of war burned across the continent. Even then the country managed to improve the welfare of its population and develop democratic mechanisms. Before his lecture on the Swiss experience of democratic governance in a decentralized state at the Diplomatic Academy, Nicholas Schmitt, a well-known researcher from the Institute of Federalism at the University of Fribourg, spoke with The Ukrainian Week about Switzerland’s political system.

UW:  How is the Swiss confederation model different from the Belgian, US, German, Brazilian or Russian federations?

Switzerland is a federation exactly like all the other federations you just mentioned. Conceptually, all federations, even if built on the same principle, are very different. Federalism is a flexible system that can adapt itself to (almost) every situation. If there is a basic difference between these countries, I would place it elsewhere. Federalism can be used for two main purposes. The first is to manage a large country, and the second is to manage a multicultural country. America, Brazil and Russia are huge countries, and federalism helps to manage them. Belgium and Switzerland are so small that there is no need for a federal system. But these countries are multicultural and multilingual therefore federalism is necessary to preserve their cultural diversity. Germany represents another compromise: federalism was imposed by the Allies after World War II in order to avoid the danger of a too powerful centralized Germany like the Third Reich. Germany is not a multicultural country, but as quite a large country, federalism proved very useful for the preservation of peace and prosperity after the tragedy of the war there.

UW:  For many centuries Switzerland preserved multicultural and multinational peace and stability thanks to its confederation of cantons. Can the Swiss experience be viewed as a model of confederation in Europe and in the world?

Switzerland never aspired to be a model, but it can always be used as an example. In this case, it is quite a good example of the virtues and advantages of federalism. But countries like the USA or Germany are also good examples of full-fledged and successful federations. Unfortunately, there are other examples, like Yugoslavia, USSR or Czechoslovakia, which collapsed. But Switzerland has been surviving for almost two centuries. Therefore it is clear that the solutions it has used might be interesting to look at. But one must always to keep in mind the fact that all federations have very unique characteristics shaped by history, geography, the environment, natural resources, neighbourhood and so on. They cannot be easily transferred from one country to another.

UW: Some multinational states have used different forms of decentralization or devolution by extending some part of power to the local authorities to preserve national integrity. Is this way really efficient in different countries?

If we say that federalism is an "extreme" form of decentralization, it is clear that decentralized states are much more efficient than others. Just keep in mind the fact that federations are often rich countries, such as the USA, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Australia, or efficient countries, such as India, Malaysia, or Brazil. Look at Africa. Nigeria and South Africa — both federations — are the most powerful states on the continent. Ethiopia has proved peaceful after a tremendously dramatic history since it was transformed into a federation in 1991 – 1995. Of course, federalism cannot be the only solution to all problems. It requires some pre-conditions among other existing regions, and a certain sense of the state of law. Still, it is clear that almost all states that were overcentralized have failed. The worst and poorest states in the world are highly centralized – look at Burma or North Korea. For this reason, many centralized states, like France, Italy or Japan, have introduced decentralization policies. Moreover, some countries which have experienced civil wars or political troubles, including Nepal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka and Cyprus, are considering federalism as a way to solve their problems.

UW: How does the Swiss Confederation support its territorial communities? How dependant are local communities on the confederation and canton governments financially?

Like every classical federation, the Swiss federal state guarantees the existence and borders of its member states – the cantons. But finance represents a key element of any federation. It is impossible for a member state to have real sovereignty without financial independence. As long as member-states are held on the golden leash of central funding, there is neither real decentralization nor real federalism. In the case of Switzerland, the three levels of the State – Confederation, cantons and municipalities – enjoy the power to collect taxes. Of course, money flows between these three levels, but if you take into account the total budget of the country, it is roughly divided as follows: one third for the central government, one third for the cantons and one third for the municipalities. This in undoubtedly one of the interesting examples Switzerland can offer: no decentralization without significant financial devolution.

UW: What impact do Confederation and canton governments have on decisions in communities? Do they have the power to denounce decisions by local bodies of self-government?

Federalism allows each level to preserve its autonomy. The Swiss Confederation has absolutely no power over municipalities. The latter belong to the exclusive power of the cantons. As such, there are 26 systems of local collectivities in the country. Federalism is a system in which each level keeps as much independence as possible. There is light supervision of a canton upon municipalities aimed at preventing any severe governance crisis. In a rare case where such a crisis takes place there are some procedures that allow the canton to take over the management of the municipality. But this is a very rare occasion.

Federalism is also a system which should put in place intergovernmental relations, i.e. dialogue between the partners which is a tool of averting crises. With the European Union – if it were a full-fledged federation – the economic and monetary problems would not have been possible, as more information would have been exchanged between countries and the European government, and it would have been possible to prevent the crisis.

UW: How does the Swiss Confederation support languages protected by the Constitution?

Switzerland has four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch. Based on Art. 70 of the Federal Constitution, two of them – Italian and Romansch which as the languages of ethnic minorities based on the number of representatives of the respective communities – enjoy some special measures funded by the Confederation. This is a certain deviation of federalism, as languages should belong exclusively to the powers of cantons. But in this case, preservation of languages has been considered more important than the federal principles itself. Note that the preservation of the Swiss diversity has been the key element promoted by the Swiss Founding Fathers from the very beginning. Thus, the country’s important duty is to take every possible effort to preserve the threatened languages. But financial means cannot do all the work. Political will is as important as financial elements. Romansch, for instance, has no foreign background, unlike Italy for Italian, France for French and Germany for German. This makes the preservation of its linguistic identity quite difficult. Moreover, there is no one Romansch. Instead, there is a mix of five dialects. To implement this constitutional provision, a federal law on languages and understanding between linguistic communities was adopted on October 7th, 2007. It took a long time to be adopted, and that shows how difficult it is to try and preserve linguistic diversity. It really requires permanent political will!

UW: Switzerland often uses referendums to approve political decisions. How do the authorities decide the legitimacy of such popular votes? It is common knowledge that public opinion is not always backed by a deep understanding of complicated issues.

In Switzerland, the people are sovereign. They can decide and have the last word on anything. In fact, Swiss citizens are supposed to be more educated than in other countries. Moreover, citizens vote very often. But, of course, it is true that some quite complicated votes are difficult to understand; it is difficult to really estimate the impact of a decision. But there is no question about this: citizens get to decide and that's all! The people are always right! I must say that the citizens have never voted in a way to create a problem for the country throughout its history. The only case in which a popular decision was not respected concerned the vote against summer time. Swiss authorities decided that it was just impossible for Switzerland to live by a different time than the rest of Europe.

UW: On the other hand, authoritarian states often use referendums as a manipulative tool to distort public opinion. Is there any way to escape these anti-democratic instruments?

Switzerland represents an exception in this because citizens vote almost every three months at the federal and canton levels (even at the levels of municipalities). If citizens vote one time every ten years, of course this unique vote will be charged with plebiscitary elements. Regional reform was not adopted in 1969 in France because General de Gaulle threatened to resign if the draft was not adopted. So citizens voted against the general and not against a very good reform – which was never implemented in the end, unfortunately. It was the same with the European treaty, which was rejected in France because people voted against Chirac and his government. Such a situation is impossible in Switzerland where votes cover such a huge political spectrum and so many different topics that there is absolutely no relation between government and the outcome of votes. In Switzerland, direct democracy focuses only on the topic, without political thoughts. And if a draft supported by the government is not supported by the voters, then the government says: Sorry, but tomorrow is another day!

This implies two elements: the first one is the opportunity to organize votes quite easily and quickly. In many developing countries, the organization of the presidential election is a huge and expensive task. In Switzerland, votes take place every three months.

The second one is that in a multicultural country, all these votes help to create new divisions. When votes concern speed limit, wine production, teaching of music, relations with Europe, prohibition of smoking, taxation etc. there are always different and moving pros and cons. This helps avoid the same majorities and minorities repeating over and over again. Sometimes, just a few votes can have a dividing impact: for instance, the German-speaking Swiss are more against Europe, while the French-speaking community supports it. Therefore, votes on this topic can be quite divisive (although, unfortunately, the whole country is currently against Europe). Therefore, the only way to avoid the manipulative element is to have a lot of votes. But it is not easy. Switzerland is considered to be the country where more than half of all referendums and initiatives in history have been held.

UW:  There are great fears about the constructive role of federalism in Ukraine. Many experts believe that Ukraine’s transformation into a federal state – which some pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine promote – could lead to dissent and the collapse of Ukraine.  How might the Swiss experience of decentralization be useful for Ukraine today?

Every state has its own background and Switzerland is nothing but an example of what federalism – and therefore decentralization – can bring. It shows that federalism has allowed for the preservation of an effective and prosperous multiethnic state, without any tendency towards secessionism. It is not the role of a Swiss scholar to comment on the Ukrainian system. Ukraine should do some careful "constitutional shopping" in trying to select the best elements from many countries in the world. In doing this, it will become clear that decentralization represents mostly advantages. But there is a great difference between Ukraine and Switzerland: the latter was created through aggregation, starting with independent cantons which decided to join and delegate a portion of their powers to the central federal government. In this case, there is a centralizing element that many tend to forget as they see only the decentralizing element of federalism. Should Ukraine wish to decentralize with the delegation of power to decentralized units, the great problem would be to give enough powers – legislative, financial and symbolic – to the periphery in order to create a really decentralized state, whilst preserving unity. Switzerland provides two interesting examples in this context.

First, one should absolutely avoid the creation of member-states representing one special identity, such as Quebec in Canada. In a more fragile political context, this can lead to secession tendencies. In Switzerland, the 26 cantons represent a grid that holds the country together, as they never coincide with ethnic breaks.

Second, Switzerland is proof that the best way to preserve national identity is to insist on its diversity. Trying to create an artificial sense of nationalism can only drive to frustrations and tension: just look at almost all African countries.


Nicholas Schmitt was born in 1959 in Zurich. Now an international expert on federalism, he co-founded the Institute of Federalism at the University of Fribourg in 1985 and is now fellow researcher there. The books he wrote include Swiss Cantons and Europe (1995), Federalism: Swiss Experience (1996), Foreign Affairs of Swiss Cantons (1996), Europe of States or Europe of Regions (19990 and more. 

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