switzerland's federalism laboratory

Federalism pushed to its outer limits: Switzerland is made up of 26 cantons or states

Switzerland did not invent federalism, but this political system has proven to be a success over the years and now the Swiss are helping other countries implement it.

This content was published on July 11, 2006 - 16:38

Fribourg University's Federalism Institute is leading the charge, inviting researchers from around the world and providing experts for conflict regions.

For Thomas Fleiner, head of the institute, it's not about exporting Swiss federalism. In fact he hates the idea.

"Our job is to stimulate research that will lead to solutions adapted to situations very different to that of Switzerland," he told swissinfo.

The institute's 18 employees are split between two centres, one national, which looks at domestic applications of federalism – often at the request of the federal government and the cantons – and the other international.

It's this second centre that attracts foreign academics who come to work on issues related to their homelands. And they have at their disposal what is considered to be

the world's best English-language library on federalism.

Switzerland doesn't claim to have a monopoly on federalism. It didn't appear with the 1291 Federal Pact - which laid the foundation for Switzerland - and its origins are probably as old as democracy itself, dating back to ancient Greece.

Modern federalism

Two thousand years later, at a time when the Swiss cantons are little more than alliance of sovereign states, it was the German thinker Johannes Althusius who laid the basis of modern federalism in the early 1600s.

He was inspired by the Swiss, but also by the Holy Roman German

Empire and the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

A century later, French philosopher Montesquieu revisited federalism, whose next incarnation would turn out to be the United States.

The US constitution, the oldest federal charter of its kind, was later to inspire the Swiss drawing up their own in 1848, leading to the birth of modern Switzerland.

But the American and Swiss systems are fundamentally different, says Fleiner.

"Switzerland chose a system that shares power between different communities," he said. "This has nothing to do with the American melting pot."

The head of the federalism institute refuses to portray Switzerland's political system as universal standard, although he does like to point out that it has helped transform the country from one of the poorest in Europe to one of the world's richest.

Slow construction

For Fleiner, Switzerland's political stability also demonstrates the value of slowly building a political system democratically.

"The international community should not impose solutions on people. Everything must come from the people since they were there before laws and constitutions," he added.

Fleiner, who advised the Serbian

authorities during the first talks over Kosovo, cites Bosnia as an example of what not to do. And warns the same error should not be repeated in Kosovo.

The negotiations over the status of the Serb province is just one many international mandates given to the institute. On the spot or in Switzerland, its staff has been able to give its opinion on ethnic conflicts in regions such as Iraq, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Somalia and Burundi.

This doesn't mean the outcome is always positive. Fleiner helped draw up the United Nations' plan to reunify Cyprus, but the proposal was reject by voters on the island and now only the Greek part has joined the European Union as a consequence.

The failure hurt, but the institute's experts know that they have to remain neutral no matter what.

"We are not political advisors," Fleiner told swissinfo. "Our goal is to help people reach a consensus, and to get that result, you need real knowledge."

Summer courses

Since 1986, the institute organises summer courses. For about three weeks, students from 30 countries meet to share their knowledge and experiences to give everyone a better understanding of power sharing, decentralisation and conflict resolution.

Not all of them come from federal states, but for Fleiner this is of

little consequence.

"Around 95 per cent of the world's population lives in a multicultural context," he said. "And centralised states based on a one nation philosophy usually lack answers to the issues that may crop up."

swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez

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.

End of insertion

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 per cent of the world's population live in federal states.

End of insertion
In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

Sort by

Change your password

Do you really want to delete your profile?

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Almost finished... We need to confirm your email address. To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

Discover our weekly must-reads for free!

Sign up to get our top stories straight into your mailbox.

The SBC Privacy Policy provides additional information on how your data is processed.