Today's date:
Summer 2012

Swiss Lessons for European Federalism

Jakob Kellenberger, currently the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, was a former foreign minister of the Swiss Federation.

GENEVA —As Europe contemplates moving toward a full fiscal, economic and political union to finally solve the crisis of the single currency, citizens and leaders alike need to appreciate both the constraints and possibilities of a such a federal arrangement.

Along with the United States, Switzerland has been one of the world’s most successful federal states. Here are some key issues to bear in mind based on our experience:

Federation needs time. It took centuries for people living in Swiss cantons to get to know each other, then a long period of confederation before the move toward full federation in 1848. That transition was made only following an historical moment of great tensions between liberals and conservatives, Protestants and Catholics.

The Swiss federation has worked because the center has been respectful of the autonomy of the cantons, which were never anxious to hand over competencies. The central authorities have been very “prudent” never to abuse their powers. This prudent balance is what make Switzerland work.

The division of competencies is very clear between federal state and cantons. If a competency is not spelled out in the federal constitution, it belongs to the cantons. Federal competencies include foreign affairs; cultural policy, social policy and the economy (foreign trade, labor markets).

Notably, Switzerland is a small country of only several million not comparable to Europe’s hundreds of millions in population that would be ruled by a federation.

Further, Switzerland differs from, for example, Spain’s “asymmetric federalism” because it is “symmetric federalism” of relatively equal parts.

Any effective effort to move toward a federal political union in Europe would need to take into account this Swiss experience. Institutions must have legitimacy based on historical developments—and they must make sure that only those competencies that can’t be fulfilled at a level closest to the people are delegated to any higher authority.