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Ticino is a "model for Europe"

The city hall "Municipio" in Lugano


History professor Jonathan Steinberg explains the political uniqueness of Ticino and how Europe can learn from this "micro-state".

The following is taken from a speech Steinberg gave at Franklin College Switzerland in Lugano in 2004, and the excerpts are reprinted here with his kind permission.

What makes Ticino different? The answer I propose may surprise you: Ticino serves as a model of Europe and acts as the glue which has helped to hold the Swiss Confederation together. The Ticinese, few as they are, matter.

Like all Swiss Ticinesi are citizens, and multiple citizens at that: citizens of fuoco or commune, of the canton and of the Swiss Confederation, and this citizenship matters. It constitutes an essential component of civic identity. The commune, not the Canton or Confederation, confers Swiss citizenship.

Ticino calls itself officially the Republic and Canton of Ticino and, like every modern state, has a proper constitution. The preamble to the Ticino Constitution of 1997, states:
"The Ticinese people (il popolo ticinese) in order to guaranty peaceful life together with respect for the dignity of man, fundamental liberties and social justice, convinced that these ideals realize themselves in a democratic community of citizens, which seek the common good; faithful to its historic task to interpret Italian culture within the Helvetic Confederation; conscious that its responsibility towards future generations requires sustainable human activity with respect to nature and a use of human knowledge which respects man and the universe, ordains for itself the following Constitution..."

Sovereign speck on map

Nothing remarkable in that you may think but think again: il popolo ticinese. Is there such a thing? Does the popolo ticinese claim its rights alongside the American people or the people of China? How many are there? Well, according to official figures, there are 306,179 inhabitants of this republic of whom 73.8 per cent or 225,960 are citizens. The Republic has a total area of 2,812 square kilometres, contains 245 municipalities with an average population of 1,245 inhabitants per commune and its biggest city is Lugano with a population of 25,771. In other words, the total population of the sovereign Republic and Canton of Ticino is less than that of the city of Zurich. This mini-state gives itself a constitution, a flag, a legal code, a parliament, an executive and a judiciary. It claims to be sovereign when it occupies no more than a speck on the map.

This tiny state faces the prospect of being swallowed by the surrounding European union of states and, as the referendum on March 4, 2001 showed, it does not like it. Only 15.9 per cent of those who voted in Ticino said "yes" to immediate negotiations to join the European Union, well below the already low national average of 23.3 per cent for yes. From the outside, this behaviour looks distinctly odd. In the age of globalization, Ticino demands its independence. It seems to say "no" to what more than 300 million fellow European regard as the future: an integrated federal European Union with its currency, its mobile defence forces and...its own constitution. Perhaps before the last Ticinese turns out the lights and shuts the door, she can give [the EU] the Ticino Constitution of 1997.

Why should Ticino continue to exist and why does it matter that it does? After all, the disappearance of states has precedents in European history. The Serene Republic of Venice disappeared on May 12, 1797, when Bonaparte abolished it, and Venice was larger, richer and more important than Ticino. The German Democratic Republic with its Volksarmee, its Freie Deutsche Jugend, its Politburo and Central Committee and its Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, disappeared in 11 months in 1989-90 like a mirage and left literally nothing behind except 17 million confused citizens and 200 kilometres of Stasi files on them. What would the Republic and Canton of Ticino leave for posterity? Who would even notice that it was gone?


If a case can be made for the continued independence of micro-states in the age of global activity, it cannot rest on sentiment alone or the idea that somehow "small is beautiful". It needs hard thought and honest self-examination. I talk largely of Ticino but I could just as easily speak of the other cantons or half cantons of Switzerland in general. The case for the continued existence of micro-politics needs to be made on grounds that command general acceptance in communities beyond the boundaries of the mini-state itself. Outsiders must learn that the mini-state has a right to survive and that its survival may paradoxically benefit those most keen to abolish it.

The answer, I think, lies in the very nature of Europe itself and explains some of the continent's amazing vitality. Here we must look up from the campanile and survey the entire course of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire to the adoption of the Euro. In these nearly 16 centuries all attempts to impose uniformity from above have failed. From Charlemagne to Hitler the dream of "ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer" has turned into a nightmare. Europeans resisted it and in the end succeeded. The great Chinese empire managed to impose uniformity - give or take the odd period of war lords - for thousands of years. The Khans, Moghuls and Sultans imposed uniform rules within the limits of their technology. Emperors, kings and dictators in Europe could not. The European Union will fail too and for an unexpected reason: the peculiar Roman, Christian and feudal inheritance which made Europe unlike any other part of the world.

Core of European identity

The secret of Europe has been in the tension between universal and particular, between the empire and the estates, between the princes and their towns, between universalist religious claims and sectarian practice, between universal values and particular rights. That constant irritating, relentless but ultimately creative struggle has made Europe the vital, vigorous, inexhaustibly interesting place that it is. That is why the Republic and Canton of Ticino and that group whom the constitution calls "il popolo ticinese" must continue to exist just as within its boundaries its own regions, the Mendrisiotto, the Locarnese, the Luganese and so on must continue to battle for resources and control. The tension between universal and particular, between centre and periphery, between federal and state power, may not always be comfortable to live with but it is the very core of European identity. The price of liberty, Swiss or French, and Europe needs both, is indeed eternal vigilance.

The presence of "la terza Svizzera" preserves the multi-ethnicity of the Swiss Confederation. The loathing and distrust between German and French Swiss would have torn the Confederation in two either during the First World War or the Second, had it not been for the third identity, belonging neither to one nor the other. The Italian Swiss threaten nobody and, when a compromise has to be made, an Italian Swiss will often be selected.

As the 25 [now 27] states of Europe struggle with the draft of the new Constitution, they would do well to look to La Repubblica e Cantone del Ticino for a model of independence within a larger confederation in which particular identity and yet overall unity has been preserved. Canton Ticino really can and ought to serve as a model for Europe.

Jonathan Steinberg, 2004

Jonathan Steinberg

Jonathan Steinberg is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania and former Chair of the Department of History, and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of Franklin College Switzerland, Lugano/Sorengo.

He is the author of several works on Switzerland including the book, "Why Switzerland?" (2nd ed.1996), and the essays "Cattaneo and the Swiss Idea of Liberty" and "Switzerland and the Jews".

He was also the principal author of "The Deutsche Bank and its Gold Transactions during the Second World War" and other books on the war and the Holocaust.

In April 2008, he co-organised an international conference at the university's Center for Italian Studies titled, "Why Italian Switzerland?".

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