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New body aims to streamline Swiss politics

The House of Cantons in the centre of Bern Keystone

The "House of Cantons" has officially opened for business in Bern, aiming to smooth the decision-making process of Switzerland's 26 federal states.

This content was published on August 18, 2008 - 18:09

From August 18 Swiss political power will no longer be concentrated under the sparkling dome of the Swiss parliament and government building.

The House of Cantons, located not far from parliament, will also host discussions and decisions that affect the entire country.

"The cantons currently work together in really varied areas, from education and justice to environmental protection," Bernhard Waldmann, a professor at Fribourg University's Federalism Institute, told swissinfo.

"There are already many government conferences where the specialist directors of the individual cantons meet to coordinate their various efforts. The House of Cantons is simply an organisational, structural measure to improve and facilitate this coordination – to make the cooperation more efficient."

Until 1848 Switzerland was basically a league of independent states. Alliances, conquests and the Reformation helped shape the Swiss ability to co-exist with four languages and cultures.

Each canton has its own constitution, legislature, government and courts. Most significantly, the 26 cantons are responsible for healthcare, welfare, law enforcement and public education.

Until now the main meetings among cantonal heads have taken place all around the country. With these now centralised in the Swiss capital, coordination should in theory improve.

Waldmann stresses that intercantonal cooperation is the only way federalism can survive.

"It could even be the case that the intensification of cooperation could lead in the long term to the abolition or a reform of the current cantons. Many cantons are currently too small to fulfil all their functions," he said.

"And on the other side the population has become more mobile and needs coordination – just think of the various education systems."

Waldmann adds: "Federalism has never been rigid – it is always changing and in a state of flux – and cooperation is something significant that belongs to that."

Louder voice

With their new centre, which will employ 160 people, the cantons are also aiming to raise their profile and strengthen their voice at a governmental level.

Canisius Braun, secretary of the conference of the cantonal governments, says in recent years these haven't always been given satisfactory attention.

"The new constitution introduced in 2000 in particular cut back in certain areas the participation of cantons in national politics," he said, adding that there was a tendency among certain government representatives to centralise the decision-making process.

"Cantons, together with the voters, build the foundation of Switzerland," he said. "Historically, the cantons wanted to build a common state. It is therefore important that the cantons can better defend their interests."

Waldmann explains that over the past 30 or 40 years an increasing centralisation has established itself in Switzerland.

"The government has received more authority, signing bilateral treaties with various member states that would actually come under the jurisdiction of the cantons, for example the police, data protection, Schengen [abolition of border controls] and so on. The cantons are then obliged to implement these treaties which they themselves have perhaps not signed," he said.

"But this weakening of cantons' powers was recognised in the Nineties and the cantons' right to participate, particularly in treaties, was addressed at a governmental level."

Criticism

However, the opening of the House of Cantons has also been accompanied by criticism that it is unnecessary and that the cantons' interest are already perfectly well represented in the Senate.

Switzerland's bicameral legislature is divided into the House of Representatives and the Senate. In the House of Representatives each of the 26 cantons – no matter its size – has the right to at least one representative. The remainder of the 174 seats are distributed among the cantons according to the proportion of voters.

The Senate has 46 members, two per "full" canton and one for each of the "half" cantons – Basel Country, Basel City, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Appenzell Outer Rhodes and Appenzell Inner Rhodes.

Critics are complaining that the cantons now have a disproportionate weight at governmental level.

For this reason, the imposing turn-of-the-century building, the rent of which alone costs an estimated SFr1.7 million ($1.55 million), is already being called the "palace for cantonal barons".

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

In brief

Fribourg University's Federalism Institute, the only one its kind in Switzerland, is part of the law faculty.

The Swiss government is its biggest source of outside funding.

The institute's International Research and Consulting Centre works with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Swiss foreign ministry, other Swiss and international authorities and bodies.

One of the centre's main activities is its knowledge exchange, which includes consultancy, expertise and facilitation on questions of federalism, decentralisation, constitutional matters and institution-building.

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Key facts

Federalism is a system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units (Swiss cantons, German Länder, Canadian provinces).
The units retain some autonomy and legislative prerogatives, while the central state oversees domains such as foreign affairs, defence matters or monetary policy.
25 of the world's 193 nations have a federal system, including the United States, India, Canada, Australia and Russia.
Over 40% of the world's population live in federal states.

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