This project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no 320294


Switzerland: A Future Model for the European Union? Similarities and Differences (D4.2)

February 27, 2017

1. EU integration is trying to achieve more political integration and accommodation of a much higher degree of diversity in much less time than has ever been the case in Switzerland. Integration and expansion processes that were slower and non-linear in Switzerland and that happened in separate phases (e.g. religious diversification, linguistic diversification, territorial expansion, etc.) are all going on at the same time in the EU. Especially integration and accession with enormous shocks of diversification are engineered at the same time in the EU. From this point of view, the EU has already tried to go beyond many stages that took centuries to be completed in Switzerland.
The speed and intergovernmental method of European integration and accession has been marked by relative success in times of peace, stability and economic growth. But what has been achieved seems less politically stable and consolidated in time of crisis. The contextual differences between the EU and Swiss integration process notwithstanding, we think it is fair to say that the consolidation of the EU integration process may also be achieved by de-acceleration and by abolishing the doctrine of strict process-linearity of ever more integration of all policy areas. The integration process should rather concentrate on policy areas that are directly relevant to overall territorial security and economic stability as the background conditions to European citizenship. Secondly, the comparison shows that the foundation of a few but robust federal state institutions in Switzerland in 1848 was a moderately coercive act that should not be romanticized by calling Switzerland a “nation of will”. The “will” to be a nation was construed post factum by a slow process in which the introduction of a coherent system of direct democracy at all levels of integration was key.
2. The institutional design of the European Union seems to echo quite well the federal state formation process in Switzerland. The following precisions are however necessary in the comparative perspective. First, the momentary stage of European Integration, characterized by intergovernmental crisis management, resembles the (dysfunctional) intergovernmental centralism of the Swiss cantons during the decades before the formation of the federal-state in 1848. Second, due to the greater diversity of the European Union, this quasi-federal system has derived in extreme asymmetries between the member states. Since EU identity is not well entrenched among European citizens (and politicians), it has been hard to design institutions and policies of common territorial protection and redistribution and there is mistrust towards centralistic EU institutions (specially in the countries more affected by the economic crisis). Most European citizens do not feel that their interests are taken into account by the European Union. Third, it is important to note that in Swiss federalism the municipalities play an important role, they are much more than just administrative districts. This city-centred and bottom up construct of citizenship is guaranteed by the Swiss federal constitution. Citizens feel that their most immediate and local identity is not jeopardized but rooted in and guaranteed by the Swiss federal constitution. Compared to sub-national Swiss federalism, EU federalism is entirely focused on the nation-state and the EU institutions. Serious consideration ought to be given to the idea that European citizenship is not only about bringing citizenship to a higher European level but also about bringing it more to the root-level of citizenship: the city.
3. Direct democracy has acted as a federator in the Swiss context. Switzerland made direct democracy and direct democracy made Switzerland. There has been a slow and iterative process of adaptation of structurally similar institutions of direct democracy at all levels (communal, cantonal, federal) of all units (all communes, all cantons, confederation roughly between 1830-1891. To the contrary, the EU is only incipiently in a process of introducing direct democracy (in some member-states and ECI), and so far direct democracy is mainly practiced as national plebiscitary democracy. Under this guise it is seen as a threat to EU integration and probably not without good reason.1 While in Switzerland the coherent introduction of direct democracy at all levels of the polity in the long run served as an important unifier, direct democracy has even not been considered as integrative part of all levels of political integration in the EU.
4. It is of great interest that the one element in which the European Union has based the construction of EU citizenship and identity – mobility of residence – has been implicitly discouraged in Switzerland. The institutional design as incorporated in Swiss multicultural identity (which aims fundamentally at the protection of cantonal autonomy, culture and language) has facilitated that Switzerland is called today a successful multicultural society. Most citizens identify with Switzerland as a country and they like it as it is, but they do not want to take advantage of their formal right to move to other parts of the country, especially not across language borders. The same institutional design that has made of Switzerland a successful case of multiculturalism and democracy poses important barriers that make it difficult for the Swiss to move their residence across their country. Considering that one of the main features of European citizenship is the freedom of movement and residence, this poses a main concern. The Swiss compromise between the formal right and economic necessity of mobility on the one hand and the protection of political and cultural sub-identities on the other hand, is commuting. Due to the vast size, this is of limited applicability in the EU. However, in a Europe of cities and trans-border regions, commuting is an important option provided that every European citizen lives reasonably close to an important economic centre. Here again there is reason for the EU to not only focus on the member-states economies but on the urban centres and regions.
The necessary infrastructure for swift commuting (and change of residency) is not only transportation. Supporting the Swiss system of commuting is fiscal federalism and shared fiscal revenue, a welfare arrangement for all Swiss citizens and a system of redistribution of funds among cantons. Moving one’s residence is formally possible, bureaucratically difficult, and culturally burdensome. There is reason to believe that this is even more the case in the EU with 24 languages. In short, the Europe of commuters deserves attention in the context of EU citizenship.


Download the full report here: D4.2 – Switzerland