The cantons play an active role in the Confederation’s policy on Europe

The flags of the Swiss cantons
The flags of the Swiss cantons © FDFA, Presence Switzerland

The 26 cantons are the constituent elements of the Swiss Confederation. They possess a wide range of powers and are thereby involved in the development of Switzerland’s policy on Europe when their interests are at stake. The cantons define their positions within the Conference of cantonal governments (CdC), which has a representative at the Mission of Switzerland to the EU.

The participation of the cantons in foreign policy is anchored in the federal constitution. Article 55 stipulates that the cantons “shall be consulted” in the preparation of foreign policy decisions that “affect their powers or their essential interests”. The Confederation must therefore “inform” and “consult” them on such matters. The views of the cantons also carry “particular” weight if their powers are to be affected. In practice, the cantons are consulted on international negotiating mandates and their specialists take part in the delegations that safeguard Swiss interests.

Their participation is illustrated by the number of cantonal representatives within the federal administration. The cantons also have an information officer at the Swiss Mission whose mandate is to monitor bilateral relations in those areas which directly or indirectly affect cantonal interests. There are wide-ranging issues such as taxation (in Switzerland, the cantons also levy taxes); police cooperation/Schengen (policing is a cantonal sovereignty); free movement of persons, education and energy, whereby Switzerland’s policy on Europe may affect cantonal powers in numerous ways.

The voice of the cantons

The eyes and ears of the cantons within the Swiss Mission and the federal administration report to the CdC which is headquartered in Bern. The CdC is a platform for cooperation which, as its name suggests, brings together the political representatives of the executives of the 26 cantons. Each canton has one seat and one vote, regardless of its size. Over the years, the CdC has become the natural interlocutor of the cantons vis-à-vis the federal government on issues of European policy in particular. Cantonal participation is an essential ingredient of Swiss-style federalism. It allows the cantonal governments to make their voice heard and helps to reinforce the Federal Council’s foreign policy decisions, both at home and abroad.