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Switzerland is no longer a “special case”

The Economist's survey of Switzerland hits newsstands on Friday

Switzerland’s political peculiarities set it aside from its neighbours, according to a special report published on Friday by “The Economist”.

But in many respects the country has more in common with other modern democracies than it might care to admit.

The report’s author, Barbara Beck, notes that the twin traditions of federalism and direct democracy have a huge impact on every aspect of life in Switzerland.

They allow the Swiss more of a say in the political decision-making process than citizens in other countries.

Yet the country’s policies and concerns are not that different from the rest of Europe, she says.

“Switzerland is no longer a special case in the sense that its economy is subject to the same ups and downs as every other country,” Beck told swissinfo.

“Its foreign and security policies have also obviously had to adapt to the sort of world we are operating in, but it’s clear the people have a lot more say on the way the country is run and on specific policy issues.”

Special case

Beck set out to determine whether Switzerland was still a “special case”.

Her conclusion was that this was less so than it had been in the past.

But a leading Swiss journalist, Roger de Weck, warns against any country – including Switzerland – thinking that it is somehow better than others.

“It’s always dangerous when a country says it is special,” he told swissinfo.

“I have French friends and they think they are special. I have British friends and they know they are special. It’s fine for each country to be different but that shouldn’t be turned into a cult,” he added.

Slow growth

Where Switzerland remains unique, says Beck, is in its system of direct democracy, which allows the people to have the last word on any policy issue.

Beck admits that the system has clear advantages but she feels it has also hindered Switzerland’s economic growth over the last 20 years.

The downside of direct democracy is that change takes a lot longer than in countries where political power is more centralised.

The opening up of the electricity market to competition, for example, was put before the electorate and defeated.

Aymo Brunetti, chief economist at the economics ministry, agrees that direct democracy can, and does, slow down reform.

“It is quite a conservative system because you always have to convince people to change the status quo,” he told swissinfo.

“Of course it’s quite easy to raise fears in people’s minds and encourage them to settle with what already exists.”


Switzerland unites linguistic and geographical differences, and enjoyed the highest per capita income for much of the 20th century.

Although it is hard to define exactly what qualifies as “Swissness”, de Weck feels it is perhaps no longer what it once was.

“The old definition included direct democracy, tradition, mountains and chocolate, but now it’s something that has to be reinvented almost every day,” he said.

“A man living in a mountain hut in eastern Switzerland has very little in common with a private banker in Geneva, but they belong to the same country and they have to define all the time what they have in common.”

One issue that unites many Swiss is the desire to stay out of the European Union.

It is perhaps the one aspect – apart from its political system – that really sets Switzerland apart from its neighbours, according to Beck.

“Switzerland is still a special case in the way it has not decided to join the EU,” she said

“But that decision, too, is very much down to its political system.”

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

The Economist survey says that Switzerland’s system of direct democracy is the country’s most unique feature.

While direct democracy allows people to have the last say on policy issues, the report’s author, Barbara Beck, feels it has also hindered economic growth.

Beck believes Swiss membership of the EU is neither economically nor politically necessary at the moment.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR