Geneva and Vaud set to remain apart

The future of cantons Vaud and Geneva will be decided at the ballot box

Voters in Geneva and Vaud are likely to reject a merger of their two cantons this weekend. But is a reorganisation of the Swiss regions inevitable?

This content was published on June 2, 2002 - 13:10

While the number of people backing the idea of a Lake Geneva super-canton is growing, the chances of a merger are slim. Analysts say a yes vote of more than 20 per cent would be considered a success.

The arguments for a marriage are persuasive: a powerhouse French-speaking region that could counterbalance the weight of Zurich; a simplification of taxation rules; a slimmed-down, efficient administration; more coherent health and educational services; an improved ability to attract investors.

The twin initiatives were proposed by the Union Vaud-Genève, an association created four years ago to promote the idea of a merger. It says that for ordinary people the region already exists - every day, 17,000 people commute between Vaud and Geneva.

Big savings

They also believe a merger would result in big savings for taxpayers. They estimate that economies of scale would cut public spending by 13 per cent.

Opponents say cantons cannot be regarded in the same way as multinational companies, pointing out that thousands of public employees would face redundancy in the unlikely event that a merger were to happen. Besides which, they say, the political climate is not right for such a debate.

"The timing is all wrong. This really is not a priority - there are more urgent issues to be addressed. It is too big an undertaking at the moment," says Patrick Schmied, president of the Christian Democratic Party in Geneva.

"People may say they like the idea, but when you tell them their hospitals will merge, or that their university department will move to Lausanne, they change their minds," adds Schmied.

The members of the Union Vaud-Genève come from right across the political spectrum. But virtually all political parties and both cantonal governments have come out against the initiative.

Different political cultures

"The merger that is being proposed ignores the unique historical and institutional realities of the two entities, as well as their different political cultures," a joint statement by the two cantonal governments said.

Even if defeat seems a foregone conclusion, the Union Vaud-Genève is taking a longer-term view. It sees the referendum as a first step on the road to a more regionalised Switzerland, where the cantons are replaced by six or seven larger regions.

To this end the Union has set up a Regional Observatory, whose aim will be to promote debate about the renewal of federalism in Switzerland.

"The federal system doesn't work any more. The process of regionalisation is irreversible," says François Cherix, president of the Union Vaud-Genève.

The notion of a "Switzerland of the Regions" has gained ground in the press, but it has not been winning over enough converts among the people who really matter - the decision makers - even if in June 2000, 30 federal legislators signed an "Appeal for a Switzerland of the Regions".

Insurmountable problems

"The germ of the idea exists, but serious attempts to make it happen do not, because the politicians realise it poses too many potentially insurmountable problems," says Nicolas Schmitt, a legal expert at the Institute of Federalism in Fribourg.

He told swissinfo that harmonising the many different cantonal judicial systems would be a gargantuan task. The same could be said about education. Larger regions are also more likely to provoke tensions along religious or cultural lines than smaller, homogenous cantons, says Schmitt.

"This has implications for the very survival of the country," he says. "The extent to which people's identity would be harmed by carving up the country has been underestimated."

Despite the fact that a majority of Swiss people still identify very strongly with their canton and jealously guard their local autonomy, there is a growing feeling that many cantons are simply too small to manage their own affairs efficiently.

Analysts say they lack the weight to compete with the larger European regions, and are being undermined by an imperceptible centralism, whereby more and more powers are being transferred to Bern, or, in those areas where the cantons retain powers, the federal government lays down the guidelines.

Top-down solution

An alternative to the merger of cantons is the concept of "functional regions" or ad hoc regional assemblies, which could deal with specific inter-cantonal issues while preserving each canton's distinct identity. Such a solution is being actively studied in Basel's two half-cantons and in central Switzerland.

Even opponents of the Vaud-Geneva initiative can see the logic in reorganising the administrative make-up of the country.

"Everyone agrees a merger makes sense. But for it to work, such a reorganisation would only be politically possible if it was done top-down by the Confederation," he told swissinfo.

While a Lake Geneva super-canton might counterbalance the influence of Zurich, it could, conversely, reduced the influence of French-speakers at the federal level, since they would lose seats in the upper house of parliament, to which each canton sends two representatives.

One fewer French-speaking canton could also tip the balance in federal referenda, where a double majority of people and cantons is required. Would UN membership have been approved had a Geneva-Vaud merger happened before the vote?

by Roy Probert

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