Federalism is a collaborative form based on contrasts and opposites. It provides a diverse range of solutions and needs to be developed further for the future.
Anti-democratic developments are making headlines around the world. Social cohesion constantly needs to be reestablished. Without wishing to detract from the latest developments in any way, this insight is not new. But it shows that there are existing and learned measures that can be applied. Federalism also needs to be nurtured and developed. In Switzerland, a constant flow of new initiatives play their part here. In 2022, the Swiss Society for the Common Good (SSCG), founded in 1810, launched the Think + Do Tank Pro Futuris to tackle the latest issues and challenges. It is designed to offer space for experimentation with the aim of strengthening democracy. The same idea motivated National Council member Natalie Imboden in 2022, when she tabled a motion suggesting that a fitting way to mark the 175th anniversary of the federal constitution would be to create a democracy foundation for the future. These endeavours join the ranks of existing initiatives focusing on national cohesion and maintaining democracy. As far back as 1914, intellectuals in French-speaking Switzerland initiated the foundation of the New Helvetic Society (NHG). On the eve of the First World War, they felt that the looming international conflict threatened domestic peace between the German-speaking and French-speaking regions of Switzerland. Many years later, in 1967, the NHG, along with the cantons, founded the ‘ch Foundation for Federal Cooperation’. The catalyst, according to the commemorative publication by Swiss journalist Hans Tschäni marking the 50th anniversary of the NHG, was the sense that the cantons ‘cannot bring themselves to collaborate properly’.
The foundation enabled the cantons to support collaboration. Since its creation, it has initiated and nurtured a range of different projects – for example it awards the Prize for Federalism, and this March it launched the Citoyenneté Conference to encourage the cantons to exchange ideas on political education. In 1976, it introduced the Premier Emploi programme, which continues to give unemployed graduates the opportunity to take up an internship in a different language region to promote cultural-political bridge-building. The foundation is the perfect vessel for promoting collaboration between the cantons and implementing projects in the interests of all 26.
‘The ch Foundation is able to ignore political relevance to a certain extent and take on longer-term tasks: maintaining social cohesion and helping federalism to evolve,’ explains Florence Nater, state councillor of the canton of Neuenburg and chair of the board of trustees. It complements the Conference of Cantonal Governments (KdK) and the Directors’ conferences.
The latter involve meetings of the cantonal departmental directors on a specific subject. The KdK is the body for all cantonal governments. The foundation, by contrast, intervenes less on everyday issues. It does the groundwork. ‘The foundation wants to make Switzerland’s diversity visible and to provide impulses that can be taken up and developed in politics and society,’ Florence Nater states.
Strength of federalism
‘Federalism is first and foremost a means of living in a diverse environment – with different languages, cultures and varying regional realities – while existing as a single entity at the same time,’ explains Florence Nater. It allows communities to live together without giving up their regional idiosyncrasies. But it needs a common basis: solidarity, a consensus-seeking mindset and subsidiarity. Switzerland is a single entity and highly successful not despite but because of its differences. Federal collaboration, as practised and supported by the ch Foundation, is based on flexibility and proximity to the people.
‘One of the great strengths of federalism is that decisions are not made in some political centre but at local level, where their direct impact can be felt and where people have the opportunity to participate,’ Florence Nater explains. Political geographer and director of the Sotomo research institute Michael Hermann also believes that the advantage of federalism is that it enables solutions to be implemented at local level.
It recognises that needs differ from region to region – those of rural areas are not the same as those of urban centres, for example – and allows these differences to be taken into account. Michael Hermann attributes the strength of Swiss federalism to a weakness in the concept. The borders of the cantons do not run along language lines, which means that some cantons are multilingual. For Michael Hermann, this is preferable to Belgian federalism, for example, where the division along language lines reinforces differences. By contrast, Swiss federalism contributes towards a sense of cohesion by not simply dividing the population into German speakers and French speakers. Instead, Michael Hermann explains, it allows people to identify with a particular place – as a citizen of Zurich, Appenzell or Valais, for example. He also sees a second important advantage in the federal system: a competition of ideas. Each canton is able to find its own solutions. ‘At cantonal level, the idea of competitive learning from the others’ solutions is of crucial importance,’ he maintains. ‘It is only through dialogue that we see what others are doing, where they have encountered issues and where they have been successful.’ This is an advantage that Florence Nater also cites: ‘Switzerland is one big laboratory for ideas, but particularly for concrete solutions. Federalism allows experiments to be lived out in real time, in a diverse society with all of its differences: between regions, between population groups from different backgrounds and between genders,’ Florence Nater states. ‘Each community and each canton has its own experiences and, in an ideal world, discussing them allows the good solutions to win through. Federal diversity is a very definite plus, not a minus.’ However, the competition and the differences are also challenging. If mobility across cantonal borders is to be encouraged, more harmonisation is needed – for example in healthcare and in the education system.
‘At cantonal level, the idea of competitive learning from others’ solutions is of crucial importance.’
Michael Hermann, Director of the Sotomo research institute
Federalism and cohesion
This harmonisation requires consensus and a common understanding – in the same way as a collaboration. In federal cooperation, there is less regulatory activity than at national level. Because it is not possible simply to pronounce a law, human and interpersonal components become more important. The system demands more discussions and human understanding. Collaboration takes place on an equal footing. At the conferences, the cantons act like partners that represent all of the different administrative cultures, systems and traditions. The differences are not always directly understood. ‘We need cultural translators and cultural interpreters,’ explains Michael Hermann. Interaction and comparisons are important, ensuring that information flows, including to the outside world. If this flow of information is blocked, Michael Hermann warns there is a risk of a lack of transparency. That militates against trust. This is a potential weakness of federalism, because transparency needs to be actively nurtured. ‘Not concealing information is not enough,’ he explains. Twenty-six different cantonal solutions lack transparency if they cannot be compared. Information needs to be harmonised. A key part of federalism is making an active effort to create transparency through comparability and to build trust. Federalism needs constant nurturing, transparency and regular dialogue. It is not a rigid construct. ‘Like the whole political system, it needs to be constructively and critically questioned on an ongoing basis and, where necessary, fine-tuned,’ explains Florence Nater. ‘To achieve this, we need to be open to future-oriented solutions.’ This sounds like a lot of work but, above all, it is an approach that brings more opportunities.
‘The ch Foundation is able to ignore political relevance to a certain extent and take on longer-term tasks: maintaining social cohesion and helping federalism to evolve.’
Florence Nater, Chair of the Board of Trustees at the ch Foundation
In recent years, federalism has been under pressure and we have seen a tendency towards centralised solutions. ‘But federalism has deep roots in Switzerland at institutional level,’ Florence Nater maintains. The ch Foundation runs continuing education classes on federalism to help develop, support and strengthen it. It also aims to spark debate about the opportunities and challenges involved in federal solutions through its ch blog. The posts focus on concrete issues that are relevant to federalism such as digitalisation, media promotion and crisis management. Federalism needs to be nurtured. That was the whole point of creating the foundation and it is as relevant today as it was then. Florence Nater comments, ‘From the cantons’ perspective, this means that one focus in the near future will be on reminding the population of the tangible benefits and advantages of federal solutions, as a commitment to respect diversity and as a tool of national and social cohesion.’