Switzerland.  Culture Smart! series

Book By Kendall Hunter

Article and Review by GlobalMacroForex

This book, which is part of the Culture Smart series, does an incredible job of conveying Switzerland’s unique culture and what makes it a ‘Sonderfall’ (a Swiss word to describe their ‘special case’ status).  Although this book doesn’t cover decisions by the Swiss National Bank on exchange rates, it does give us some insights into why the Swiss vote the way they do.  And their voters have more power than most western nations because of the Swiss tradition of direct democracy.

Most western nations have a system of representative democracy in which citizens vote for their representatives but not on actual policy.  Switzerland has a system of direct democracy where everyday people can bring up changes to laws by getting 50,000 signatures on a referendum.  Then the issue goes to national voting.  Naturally, as a result of this, everyday Swiss citizens are more informed (even on international issues) than most Americans or other westerners.

The Swiss president isn’t a single person like most western democracies.   Instead, a 7 person council carries out the role; although the head of the council is technically the president, in reality, it’s more ceremonial in nature, and true power lies in the full council.  The head position rotates every year to prevent a consolidation of power.

Switzerland’s decision not to join the Euro monetary union is a direct reflection of their cultural tradition and how the country was founded.  To gain a better perspective on that, let’s first take a look at the modern dispersion of languages in the region…

Switzerland now is divided into 4 language blocs.  The largest and most predominant is German-speaking to the north.  Then French speakers living in the western part of the country make up the second largest majority.  Third are the Italians in the southern portion.  And finally, Romansh is a minority to the far east.

Commercial products are usually advertised in 3-4 languages, and the Swiss Franc currency itself has multiple languages on it.  Not only do the Swiss speak different languages, but when the country was founded the German speakers were Protestant and the French speakers were Catholic.  This religious divide made it difficult to make national laws since the two groups disagreed on many things.

Switzerland was born out of the resistance to being ruled by external empires. In 1273, Rudolf I of Habsburg tried to assert control over the region, but the Swiss rebelled against his rule. By 1291 the three original cantons (shown in the map below as darker green in the center) formed the Swiss Confederation with an agreement of mutual support to protect each other against external subjugation.

A canton is a like an American state, and many more cantons quickly joined the original 3.  Here are the 13 cantons of the original Swiss Confederation. 

Despite the Swiss’ good intentions, Napoléon managed to take control of the region with military might.  The Swiss greatly resented this, and once Napoléon lost the Battle of Waterloo, Switerzland reinforced its federalism and decentralized direct democracy.  In modern times, there are 26 cantons.  

Switzerland’s language divide comes from its history of different empires trying to assert control.  The Italians in the South are from the BC-era Roman Empire.  The French are to the West from Napoléon’s attempts to hold onto the region.  And it was Germans from the North that originally fought the Romans out.  They mutually respected each other for protection.  This carries over into the modern Swiss position on foreign policy.  The Swiss maintain strict neutrality, which kept them out of both World Wars.

It should be no surprise then after understanding Switzerland’s history why voters overwhelmingly rejected to join the European Union.  They wanted no part of a large bureaucratic empire.  And recently since the start of the European debt crisis, Switzerland’s voters have leaned even farther to the right.