Switzerland - A Country Overview

Information on Switzerland; its place geographically, history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in Switzerland...

Geography

Switzerland is a small mountainous country in mainland Europe. It is bordered by France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein. The country has three main geographical areas: the Jura, Alps and Plateau. The many high mountain passes in the country have been important pathways between northern and southern Europe ever since humans began to migrate.

Around 60 percent of the country is alpine, the Alps being Europe's biggest mountain range. Their formation began 65 million years ago following the collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Matterhorn, on the Swiss Italian border, is Switzerland's most iconic mountain. Its distinctive horned peak is the result of three glaciers eroding hollows, or cirques, in its sides. The highest peak in the country is Monte Rosa, or the Dufourspitze, which reaches 4634m. Most of the country's many glaciers are retreating in response to increasing temperatures.

North of the Alps is the Swiss Plateau. This hilly area is the most economically important part of the country and also the most inhabited. To its north are the Jura Mountains, a small limestone mountain range which separates the Rhine and Rhone rivers.

The mountainous countryside which covers much of Switzerland makes cultivation difficult. Dairy and beef cattle can be found on the pastures of the lower mountain slopes and the lower terrain in the north and east of the Alps allows for more extensive agriculture and industry in Switzerland than the other Alpine states.

About six percent of European freshwater resources are in Switzerland. The Rhine, Rhone and Inn rivers all have their sources in the country. There are also many lakes, the largest being Lake Geneva, which is shared with France, and Lake Constance, which is shared with Germany.

The country is divided into 26 districts which are known as cantons. There are four official languages in Switzerland: German, French, Italian and Romansh. French and German are the most widely spoken. Romansh, which is a group of dialects of Latin descent, is the least used but is spoken in several regions in the canton of Graubünden in the east of the country.

History

Throughout history Switzerland's central location and mountain passes have made it a popular prize for Europe's great powers keen to control communication routes. Switzerland, as it recognised today, has only existed since 1848, when all its regions came together to form a centralised federal state.

1291 is generally considered to be the start of the Swiss confederation. In this year three rural communities allied to protect their freedoms from potential overlords. This group expanded during the 14th and 15th centuries with both urban and rural communities joining. The confederation became strong enough to influence the balance of power in Europe. During times of conflict the confederation's troops gained a reputation for their courage and skill. The confederation grew as communities joined and as other regions were conquered or bought.

In Switzerland, as elsewhere, the reformation of the 16th century was a time of riots and destruction as the Roman Catholic Church split Christian lands into two camps and Protestants rejected Papal authority. The problems went beyond religion and reflected deeper societal problems, sparking much debate about tolerance. Basel became a place of intellectual freedom in contrast to Geneva where Protestants who didn't follow the official line were imprisoned, expelled or burnt.

The thirty years war which took an enormous toll on much of Europe in the 17th century highlighted the importance of the confederation staying together despite their differences. They developed a stance of armed neutrality. This allowed them to protect their border from fighting armies and remain a haven of peace and prosperity among war ravaged lands. However the second half of the century was still marked by internal conflict over social and religious differences.

The 18th century was relatively peaceful and a century of scientific and agricultural advances with the clock-making and textile industries being developed. French troops invaded Switzerland in 1798 and the country lost its neutrality as it was forced to provide the French with troops. Swiss independence was regained in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna and European powers officially recognised Swiss neutrality. Modern Switzerland emerged in the 19th century. The constitution of 1848, which gave a centralised government and economy, marked the end of cantonal rivalries. The Federal government had responsibility for defence, trade and legal matters with everything else being controlled by the individual cantons. This was a time of development of the industries which were to be the foundation of Swiss prosperity: banking, chemicals, food and engineering.

Much of the population still lived in poverty though and there was significant migration, mainly to North and South America.

The move to specialised industries continued in the 20th century and the country is now one of net immigration. The general standard of living has risen dramatically for the majority of Switzerland's people.

Politics and Government

Switzerland has a stable government. The federal government, or council, is made up of seven members who take turns acting as president; a role which has no special privileges or powers. The most popular four parties are represented on the council. The country has a highly developed democracy which allows people to influence affairs. Citizens can both propose legislation and stop legislation approved by the government through referenda.

Switzerland is divided into 23 cantons, three of which are again divided into half cantons giving a total of 26. Each canton has its own constitution, government, parliament, court and laws. They set their own taxation levels and have their own education systems, social services and police forces. In all but two cantons, where individuals can vote on local issues, decisions are made by elected representatives. Since 1999 the cantons have been grouped into seven macro regions each focused on an urban centre. The Conference of Cantonal Governments mediates between the federal government and the cantons and shares responsibilities between them.

The cantons are further subdivided into communes. Swiss people are firstly citizens of their commune from which they derive citizenship of a canton and thus the country. Each commune, of which there are around 2900, has their own elected administrative authority. They make their own decisions on some issues and carry out canton or confederation decisions for others. They have some responsibility for transport, health, education and security. They collect taxes and register births marriages and deaths.

Switzerland's status as politically neutral allows it to play an important humanitarian role in mediating conflicts. Switzerland is an important international meeting place. It is home to one of the headquarters of the United Nations, an organisation it joined in 2002.

Economy

The Swiss economy is one of the most stable in the world. It has low unemployment and one of the world's highest per capita incomes. Switzerland lacks raw materials so it very dependent on foreign trade, mainly within the European Union. Raw materials are imported and used to manufacture high quality goods which are then exported. Swiss products can demand high market prices as consumers will pay for top quality products. To maintain this edge a lot of time and money is put into research and development.

The economy is based on having highly qualified people doing skilled work in areas such as micro-technology, biotechnology, insurance and banking. The Swiss financial centre, which is focused in Geneva, Lugano and Zurich, is a key part of the country's economy. At the end of 2009, six percent of the working population was employed by financial institutions.

Tourism is also a major contributor to the Swiss economy with visitors being drawn to the country year round by its spectacular scenery.

Climate

Climatically Switzerland is in a transition zone. In the east there is a nearly continental climate which has lower temperatures and less rainfall than in the west, which is strongly influenced by the Atlantic Ocean. The Alps also form a climatic divide south of which there is an almost Mediterranean climate. Here temperatures are significantly higher and there is a lot of rain.

Generally spring is cool and damp while summer is warm and dry with temperatures reaching a maximum of 35°C. Temperatures are primarily determined by elevation and drop significantly in autumn. In winter, temperatures can drop below zero throughout the country. There is usually a lot of snow in the mountains in winter but significant amounts are not uncommon throughout the country.

Security

Switzerland is a very safe county, both to live in and to visit. Violence and gun crime rates are very low. Petty crime, such as pick pocketing, which is generally aimed at foreign tourists, is more common.

Foreigners Living in the Country

In comparison to other European countries the number of foreigners who have become Swiss nationals is relatively low. However the number of foreigners resident in the country is high. Most foreigners living in Switzerland are from other European countries, with many coming from former Yugoslavian states, Italy, Portugal and Germany.

Tourism

Switzerland's mountains attract visitors from around the world all year round. Many mountain areas are well developed with trains, cable cars and cog railways which allow people to make the most of the skiing, climbing, biking, hiking and other sports available. The country's many mountain resorts and beautiful lakes are the most popular attractions with tourists. Many mountain towns, such as Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn are car free and very tourist friendly. City breaks, particularly to Zürich, Geneva, Lugano, Bern and Basel are also very popular. Tourism is the major employer in the Alps and their foothills.

Further Information