Institut für Föderalismus
Faculté de droit

Swiss federalism

Concept and character

«Federalism in this country is often associated with the <Kantönligeist> or provincialism (literally <little canton mentality>). Politicians and the media are fond of criticising regulations governing issues like dangerous dogs, passive smoking, trading standards or schools, portraying federalism as a legal straightjacket that prevents or at least impedes efficiency and progress. Today's division of authority between the Confederation and the cantons gives rise to a diverse array of regulations that can sometimes exacerbate existing problems. However, to equate federalism with cantonal sovereignty in certain areas and the resulting legal fragmentation is to oversimplify the matter. Federalism has a much wider meaning. It is, in fact, an organising principle according to which a political community or alliance is divided into constituent political units, which are afforded (or retain) substantial autonomy and contribute to shaping the will of the higher political authority. This organising principle finds its main expression as a form of government in federally organised nation states, but it can also serve as a useful framework for international and supranational organisations. Federalism, moreover, is a state of mind, a culture shared by citizens and institutions.

In Switzerland, the federal system dates back to the Federal Constitution of 1848, but the foundations for the territorial structure were largely established by the Old Swiss Confederacy and later by Napoleon's Act of Mediation (1803). Even though the Federal Constitution mentions neither federalism nor a federal state, it establishes a political maxim and an underlying structural principle based to a certain extent on the constitutional set-up. The substance of this basis arises from the constitutional provisions as a whole, which dictate government structure and division, and from the legal system based on these provisions. Alongside the rule of law, democracy and the social state, federalism represents a key pillar of the Swiss system of government." (From Bernhard Waldmann, "Föderalismus unter Druck, Eine Skizze von Problemfeldern und Herausforderungen für den Föderalismus in der Schweiz», in: Gredig et al. (eds), Peters Dreiblatt, Special Edition for Peter Hänni on his 60th Birthday, Bern 2010, page 3 ff.).

«Nowadays the concepts of federalism and the federal state are inextricably linked. A federal structure, however, is too easily assumed as a given, since it is difficult to imagine any alternative for Switzerland. But this has not always been the case. The Swiss federal state, as it exists today with all its peculiarities, is not a theoretical system sculpted by experts in constitutional law. Instead it is the product of two hundred years of development that have seen a vacillation between federal and centralised systems and conflicts between federalists and centralists, conservatives and liberals, and Catholics and Protestants. The Swiss Confederation in its unique configuration is the result of these historical conflicts. To understand the role of the cantons within the federal state, we therefore must first understand their origins. The building blocks of the present-day Swiss Confederation are not various theories of statehood but rather an organic evolution from small independent states to a functioning and modern single state.» (From: Ursula Abderhalden, Die Geschichte des schweizerischen Bundesstaates, in: Peter Hänni (ed.), Schweizerischer Föderalismus und europäische Integration, Zurich 2000, p. 5).

Legal bases

  • Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation of 18 April 1999 (SR 101)
  • Federal Act of 22 December 1999 on the Participation of the Cantons in Federal Foreign Policy (SR 138.1)

Materials and reports on federalism

  • Federal Council Dispatch of  20 November 1996 on a new Federal Constitution, BBI 1997 I 1. (german page)
  • Federal Council Dispatch of 14 November 2001 on Redistributing Fiscal Equalisation and Responsibilities between the Confederation and the Cantons, BBl 2002 2291
  • Federal Council Report of 15 June 2007on the Effects of Various European Political Instruments on Federalism in Switzerland ("Federalism Report"), BBl 2007 5907 ff.

Literature on Swiss federalism

The Institute regularly publishes a bibliography on Swiss federalism.

Since 2005 it has also compiled reports for the ch Foundation for Federal Cooperation on the findings and trends in Swiss federalism research.

Mapping federalism in Switzerland

For further information please consult the french page.


Institute of Federalism

University of Fribourg
Av. Beauregard 1
1700 Fribourg
Phone +41 26 300 8125

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