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  U.S. Department of State, May 1999
Bureau of European Affairs

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Background Notes:

Official Name:
Swiss Confederation



Area: 41,285 sq. km. (15,941 sq. mi.); about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.
Cities: Capital -- Bern. Other cities -- Zurich, Basel, Geneva, Lausanne.
Terrain: 60 % mountains, the remainder hills and plateau. Switzerland straddles the central ranges of the Alps.
Climate: Temperate, varying with altitude and season.


Nationality: Noun and adjective -- Swiss (singular and plural).
Population (1998): 7.11 million.
Annual growth rate: 0.3%.
Ethnic groups: Mixed European.
Religions: Roman Catholic 46%, Protestant 40%, others 5%, no religion 9%.
Languages: German 64%, French 19%, Italian 8%, Romansch 1%, other 8%.
Education: Years compulsory -- 9. Attendance -- 100%. Literacy -- 100%.
Health: Infant mortality rate -- 5/1,000. Life expectancy -- men 74 yrs., women 81 yrs.
Work force (3.8 million): Agriculture-- 4%. Industry -- 29%. Services and government -- 67%.


Type: Federal state.
Independence: The first Swiss confederation was founded in August 1291 as a defensive alliance among three cantons.
Constitution: 1848; extensively amended in 1874.
Branches: Executive -- Federal Council, collegium of seven members, one of whom is elected president for a one-year term. Legislative -- Federal Assembly (bicameral: Council of States, 46 members; National Council, 200 members). Judicial -- Federal Tribunal.
Administrative subdivisions: 26 cantons (states) with considerable autonomy (20 are full and 6 "half" cantons for purposes of representation in the national legislature).
Political parties: Free Democrats (FDP), Christian Democrats (CVP), Swiss People's (SVP--all conservative), Social Democrats (SP), and several smaller parties representing localities or views from extreme left to extreme right.
Suffrage: In federal matters, universal over 18.
Flag: Square, white cross on red field.


GDP (1996): $294.6 billion.
Annual growth rate (1996): 0.2% in real terms.
Per capita income (1997 est.): $35,614.
Avg. inflation rate (1997): 0.5%.
Natural resources: Waterpower, timber, salt.
Agriculture (2.8% of GDP): Products -- dairy, livestock, grains, fruit and vegetables, potatoes, wine.
Arable land: 25%.
Industry (31.1% of GDP): Types -- machinery, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, banking, insurance, time pieces, precision instruments, textiles and clothing, pigment, transportation equipment, and tourism.
Trade: Exports --$72.5 billion: machinery and electronics; chemicals and pharmaceuticals; instruments and timepieces. Major markets -- Germany, U.S., France, Italy, U.K. Imports -- $71.1 billion: machinery and electronics; chemicals; vehicles. Major suppliers -- Germany, France, Italy, U.S., the Netherlands, U.K., Japan, Austria, and Belgium/Luxembourg.


Switzerland sits at the crossroads of several major European cultures, which have heavily influenced the country's languages and cultural practices. Switzerland has four official languages -- German, French, Italian, and Romansch (based on Latin and spoken by a small minority in the Canton Graubuenden). The German spoken here is predominantly a Swiss dialect, but newspapers and some broadcasts tend to use High German. Many Swiss speak more than one language. English is widely known, especially among professionals.

More than 75% of the population lives in the central plain, which stretches between the Alps and the Jura Mountains and from Geneva in the west to the Rhine River and Lake Constance in the east. Resident foreigners and temporary foreign workers make up about 19% of the population.

Almost all Swiss are literate. Switzerland's 12 institutes of higher learning enrolled 91,400 students in academic year 1996-97, of which 19% were foreign students. The constitution guarantees freedom of worship.


Originally inhabited by the Helvetians, or Helvetic Celts, the territory comprising modern Switzerland was conquered by Julius Caesar during the Gallic wars and made part of the Roman Empire. It remained a Roman province until the 4th century AD. Under Roman influence, the population reached a high level of civilization and enjoyed a flourishing commerce. Important cities, such as Geneva, Basel, and Zurich, were linked by military roads that also served as trade arteries between Rome and the northern tribes.

After the decline of the Roman Empire, Switzerland was invaded by Germanic tribes from the north and west. Some tribes, such as the Alemanni in central and northeastern Switzerland, and the Burgundians, who ruled western Switzerland, settled there. In 800, the country became part of Charlemagne's empire. It later passed under the dominion of the German emperors in the form of small ecclesiastic and temporal holdings subject to imperial sovereignty.

In 1291, representatives of the three forest cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden signed the Eternal Alliance. This united them in the struggle against "foreign" rule by the Hapsburgs, who then held the German imperial throne. At the battle of Morganten in 1315, the Swiss defeated the Hapsburg army and secured quasi-independence within the German Empire as the Swiss Confederation.

Under the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, European countries recognized Switzerland's independence from the Holy Roman Empire and its neutrality.

In 1798, armies of the French Revolution conquered Switzerland. The Treaty of Vienna and the Second Peace of Paris in 1815 re-established Swiss independence, and the powers participating in the Congress of Vienna agreed to recognize Swiss permanent neutrality.

Switzerland adopted a federal constitution in 1848, modeled in part on the U.S. Constitution. The Swiss amended their constitution extensively in 1874, establishing federal responsibility for defense, trade, and legal matters. Since then, continued political, economic, and social improvement has characterized Swiss history. The Swiss did not participate in either world war.


Switzerland is a federal state composed of 26 cantons (20 are "full" cantons and six "half" cantons for purposes of representation in the federal legislature) that retain attributes of sovereignty, such as fiscal autonomy and the right to manage internal cantonal affairs. Under the 1874 constitution, cantons hold all powers not specifically delegated to the federation. Switzerland's federal institutions are:

  • A bicameral legislature -- the Federal Assembly;
  • A collegial executive of seven members -- the Federal Council; and
  • A judiciary consisting of a single, regular court, the Federal Tribunal, in Lausanne and special military and administrative courts. The Federal Insurance Tribunal is an independent division for social security questions (the seat of the latter is in Lucerne, but it is part of the Federal Tribunal).

The constitution provides for separation of the three branches of government.

The Federal Assembly is the primary seat of power, although in practice the executive branch has been increasing its power at the expense of the legislative branch. The Assembly has two houses -- the Council of States and the National Council. These two houses have equal powers in all respects, including the right to introduce legislation. Legislation cannot be vetoed by the executive nor reviewed for constitutionality by the judiciary, but all laws (except the budget) can be reviewed by referendum before taking effect.

The 46 members of the Council of States (two from each canton and one from each half canton) are directly elected in each canton. The 200 members of the National Council are elected directly under a system of proportional representation. Members of both houses serve for 4 years.

The Assembly meets quarterly in 3-week sessions and can be legally dissolved only after a popular vote calling for a complete constitutional revision.

All citizens 18 or older have the right to vote and run for office in national, cantonal, and communal elections unless individually disqualified by the relevant legislature.

A strong emphasis on the initiative and the referendum arises out of the traditional Swiss belief that the will of the people is the final national authority. As a limitation on the power of referendum, the Assembly can declare an act to be too urgent to allow time for popular consideration, but this is rare.

The top executive body is the Federal Council. Although the constitution provides that the Assembly chooses and supervises the Council, the latter gradually has assumed a preeminent role in directing the legislative process as well as executing federal laws.

The Council has seven Councilors elected for 4-year terms by the Assembly. Each year, the Assembly elects from among the seven a president and vice president, following the principle of seniority. The member who is vice president one year traditionally is elected president the next. Under an arrangement called the "magic formula," which has been in effect since 1959, two Councilors are elected from each of three major parties (Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, and Free Democrats) and one from a smaller fourth party (Swiss People's). Councilors constitutionally act collectively in all matters, not as individual ministers or as representatives of the parties to which they belong.

Each Councilor heads one of seven federal departments and is responsible for preparing legislation pertaining to matters under its jurisdiction. The president, who remains responsible for the department he heads, has limited prerogatives and is first among equals.

The administration of justice is primarily a cantonal function. The only regular federal court, the Federal Tribunal, is limited in its jurisdiction. Its principal function is to hear appeals of civil and criminal cases. It has authority to review cantonal court decisions involving federal law and certain administrative rulings of federal departments, but it has no power to review legislation for constitutionality. The Tribunal's 30 members are elected for 6-year terms by the Assembly.

The cantons regulate local government. The basic unit of local government, which administers a village, town, or city, is the commune or municipality. Citizenship is derived from membership in a commune and can be conferred on non-Swiss by a commune. Cantons are subordinate to federal authority but keep autonomy in implementing federal law.


Although it has a diverse society, Switzerland has a stable government. Most voters support the government in the armed neutrality underlying its foreign and defense policies. Domestic policy poses no major problems, but the changing international environment has generated a significant re-examination of Swiss policy in key areas such as defense, neutrality, and immigration. Quadrennial national elections typically result in few major changes in party representation.

The constitution limits federal influence in the formulation of domestic policy and emphasizes the roles of private enterprise and cantonal government. However, the Confederation has been compelled to enlarge its policymaking powers in recent years to cope with national problems such as education, agriculture, energy, environment, organized crime, and narcotics.

Principal Government Officials

Federal Departments

Foreign Affairs -- Flavio Cotti (President for 1998)
Interior -- Ruth Dreifuss (President for 1999)
Finance -- Kasper Villiger
Defense -- Adolf Ogi
Ambassador to the United States -- Alfred Defago
(since April 1997)

Switzerland maintains an embassy in the United States at 2900 Cathedral Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008. Consulates General are in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Swiss national tourist offices are in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.


Despite a dearth of natural resources, the Swiss economy is among the world's most advanced and prosperous. Per capita income is virtually the highest in the world, as are wages. While historically high for Switzerland, the unemployment rate of 4.6% is only about half the West European average.

Switzerland was one of the few West European countries to emerge from World War II with its economic structure intact, and the country enjoyed virtually uninterrupted economic growth for almost 25 years thereafter. At present, however, the Swiss economy is only now pulling out of a prolonged recession which began in 1991. Although the causes are complex, a strong Swiss franc, slow growth in Europe, and a partial collapse of the real estate market (and subsequent crash of the vital construction industry) were major factors in the downturn. Swiss firms have reacted to the crisis by carrying out significant restructuring and cost cutting, thereby substantially improving their international competitiveness during this period. This, combined with a somewhat weaker Swiss franc and genuine improvement in most European economies, led forecasters to project respectable economic growth of about 2% for Switzerland in 1998.

Swiss companies play a major role in world export markets for such high value-added products as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, watches, specialty machinery, and gourmet foods such as chocolates and cheeses. Swiss banks and insurance companies are major players on the world scene, and these sectors, together with tourism, help compensate for Switzerland's usually negative balance of trade.

The EU, as a whole, is Switzerland's largest trading partner, and economic and trade barriers between them are minimal. While it remains the Swiss Government's long-term intention to join the EU, the government was rebuffed in a referendum on the subject of membership in the European Economic Area in late 1992. This was viewed as a proxy vote on EU membership. While the debate over EU membership continues, those opposed argue that the country has not suffered economically by not being a member, pointing out that the Swiss economy, on the whole, remains the envy of much of the world. Switzerland has attempted to mitigate possible adverse effects of nonmembership by conforming many of its regulations, standards, and practices to EU directives and norms.

U.S.-Swiss economic and commercial ties are extensive. The U.S. is the second-largest importer of Swiss goods (after Germany), and the U.S. exports more to Switzerland each year than to all the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe combined. In addition, the U.S. is the largest foreign investor in Switzerland, and the Swiss invest more in the U.S. than in any other country. It is estimated that 200,000 American jobs are dependent on Swiss direct investment in the U.S.

Switzerland is a member of a number of international economic organizations, including the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, and the OECD.


Switzerland has a 400,000-member militia army, but current proposals call for a significant reduction in this number. All physically fit male Swiss citizens, aged 20 to 42, must serve. Members of the field forces are mobilized for training every other year for at least 3 weeks (longer for officers and specialists). The army has almost no full-time active combat units but is capable of full mobilization within 72 hours. The armed forces are organized into four army corps and an air force and are equipped with modern, sophisticated, and well-maintained equipment. In 1993, the Swiss Government ordered 34 FA-18s from the United States.


Though not a UN member, Switzerland is party to the Statute of the International Court of Justice, a member of most UN specialized agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and participates in many UN activities, including the Economic Commission for Europe, UN Environment Program, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UN Conference for Trade and Development, UN Industrial Development Organization, and the Universal Postal Union (UPU). Switzerland also is a member of the following organizations: World Trade Organization, Council of Europe, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, European Free Trade Association, Bank for International Settlements, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and INTELSAT. In 1996, Switzerland became a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace.

Among the declared fundamental principles of Swiss foreign policy are neutrality; universality; solidarity; international participation; and promotion of human rights, democracy, security, and peace.

The Swiss avoid alliances that might entail military, political, or direct economic action. In recent years, however, the Swiss have broadened the scope of activities in which they feel able to participate without compromising their neutrality. In 1986, a national referendum rejected membership in the UN by a 2-to-1 margin. Swiss voters approved membership in the Bretton Woods organizations in 1992 but, later that year, rejected the European Economic Area agreement which the government viewed as a first step toward EU membership. Switzerland maintains an observer at UN Headquarters, is party to the Statute of the International Court of Justice, and belongs to most UN specialized agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Swiss rejected the formation of a UN Blue Helmet Battalion (peacekeepers) in June of 1994 but joined the Partnership for Peace in late 1996 and deployed Yellow Berets to support the OSCE in Bosnia.

Switzerland maintains diplomatic relations with almost all countries and historically has served as a neutral diplomatic intermediary and host to major international treaty conferences. Since 1980, it has represented U.S. interests in Iran. Switzerland has no major disputes in its bilateral relations with other countries.

Solidarity is described as Switzerland's moral obligation to undertake social, economic, and humanitarian activities that contribute to world peace and prosperity. This is manifested by Swiss bilateral and multilateral diplomatic activity, assistance to developing countries, and support for the extension of international law, particularly humanitarian law. Switzerland (mainly Geneva) is the headquarters of many international governmental and non-governmental organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (whose flag is based upon the design of the Swiss flag, with colors reversed; the Red Cross historically is basically a Swiss organization). One of the first international organizations, the Universal Postal Union, is located in Bern.

Participation (or engagement) has been expressed by an active Swiss role in various international organizations, programs and conferences, within and outside the UN system, and Swiss availability to facilitate the resolution of international conflicts.

The Swiss imposed economic sanctions against Iraq after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It also has joined UN economic sanctions imposed on Libya and on Serbia/Montenegro. Switzerland has furnished military observers and medical teams to several UN operations. Switzerland also is an active participant in OSCE and was Chairman in Office for 1996. Switzerland also is an active participant in the major nonproliferation and export control regimes.

Under a series of treaties concluded after World War I, Switzerland assumed responsibility for the diplomatic and consular representation of Liechtenstein, the protection of its borders, and the regulation of its customs.


Switzerland is a democratic country subscribing to most of the ideals with which the United States is identified. The country is politically stable with a fundamentally strong economy. It still occupies an important strategic position within Europe and possesses a strong military capability. It has played an increasingly important role in supporting the spread of democratic institutions and values worldwide, as well as providing humanitarian relief and economic development assistance. U.S. policy toward Switzerland takes these factors into account and endeavors to cooperate with Switzerland to the extent consistent with Swiss neutrality.

The first official U.S.-Swiss consular relations were established in the late 1820s. Diplomatic relations were established in 1853. The U.S. ambassador also is accredited to the Principality of Liechtenstein.

Principal U.S. Officials

Ambassador -- Madeleine May Kunin
Deputy Chief of Mission -- Carey E. Cavanaugh

The U.S. Embassy in Switzerland is at Jubilaeumsstrasse 93, 3005 Bern, telephone: (41) (31) 357-7011. The U.S. Mission to the European Office of the United Nations and other International Organizations is in Geneva at Route de Pregny 11, 1292 Chambesy, telephone: (41) (22) 749-4111. The U.S. Mission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) is in Geneva at Avenue de la Paix 1-3, 1202 Geneva, telephone (41) (22) 749-4111. The U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) is in Geneva at Route de Pregny 11, 1292 Chambesy, telephone: (41) (22) 749-4407. America Centers and Consular Agencies are also maintained in Zurich and Geneva.


The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings, and Public Announcements. Consular Information Sheets exist for all countries and include information on entry requirements, currency regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in the country. Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country. Public Announcements are issued as a means to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas which pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Free copies of this information are available by calling the Bureau of Consular Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-on-demand system: 202-647-3000. Consular Information Sheets and Travel Warnings also are available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page: http://travel.state.gov. Consular Affairs Tips for Travelers publication series, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad are on the internet and hard copies can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, telephone: 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-2250.

Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-5225. For after-hours emergencies, Sundays and holidays, call 202-647-4000.

Passport information can be obtained by calling the National Passport Information Center's automated system ($.35 per minute) or live operators 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-Friday ($1.05 per minute). The number is 1-900-225-5674 (TDD: 1-900-225-7778). Major credit card users (for a flat rate of $4.95) may call 1-888-362-8668 (TDD: 1-888-498-3648). It also is available on the internet.

Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health Information for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.

Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see "Principal Government Officials" listing in this publication).

U.S. citizens who are long-term visitors or traveling in dangerous areas are encouraged to register at the U.S. embassy upon arrival in a country (see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials" listing in this publication). This may help family members contact you in case of an emergency.

Further Electronic Information

Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the Internet, DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background Notes; Dispatch, the official magazine of U.S. foreign policy; daily press briefings; Country Commercial Guides; directories of key officers of foreign service posts; etc. DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at http://1997-2001.state.gov.

U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on an annual basis by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on the Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an array of official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present. Contact the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800 or fax (202) 512-2250.

National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information. It is available on the Internet (www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 for more information.

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