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The cantons’ role in Swiss EU policy

From the perspective of the Swiss government sectoral agreements (the so-called bilateral route) are the most appropriate vehicle for the Switzerland-EU relations. This bilateral approach has found backing in the Swiss population and has domestic political majority.

Swiss Cantons

© schwabenblitz / Fotolia

Many European policies concern the competence of the cantons which, in principle, are empowered by the federal constitution to participate in decision-making. Article 45 regulates the general participation of the cantons, whereas the role of the cantons in the European policy of the Federation is regulated in Articles 54 and 55 of the Federal Constitution and further in federal law. Accordingly, the Federation must inform the cantons of its European policy projects in appropriate time and also ensure their adequate consultation and participation – especially if their powers or important interests are affected.

The Federal Council is likely to continue the bilateral path in responding to the concerns of the European Parliament and the Council and seeking new approaches to solving institutional issues – implementation and monitoring relevant EU law, as well as settling related disputes. In December 2013, after consultation with the cantons and the foreign affairs committees of the two chambers of the parliament the Swiss Government adopted a mandate for institutional negotiations with the EU. The way forward should respect Swiss sovereignty as a non-EU Member and does not imply any automatic adoption of new EU law. As part of these negotiations, Switzerland would like to discuss its participation in the drafting of relevant EU legal acts (“decision shaping”), in particular how the cantons could be involved. Negotiations with the EU are coordinated by the State Secretary, who is also the head of the Directorate of Political Affairs in the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

European Dialogue

Switzerland’s relations with the EU are continuously deepening. This also affects the cantons and increases their need for information, consultation and participation in the European policy of the federal government. In order to take these needs into account, and to explore possible further action, a permanent political federal-cantonal body on European issues (Europe Dialogue only DE, summary in FR) was established in June 2012. The federal government is represented by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Federal Department of Economic Affairs; the cantons are represented by the President and a number of delegates from the Conference of Cantonal Governments (Konferenz der Kantonsregierungen (KdK)).

Conference of cantonal governments

All 26 cantonal governments participate in the KdK. Joint action of cantonal governments in matters of European policy strengthens the position of the cantons at federal level. Based on the experience of European political participation in recent years, the cantonal governments formalised their ideas concerning the necessary domestic reforms in December 2013. These proposals will be discussed at future meetings under the European Dialogue. In addition to this, the KdK serves as a political platform for debate among the cantons. Specific issues or projects are dealt with by political committees and technical working groups, many of which deal with EU issues. The KdK also sends delegations to various national and international committees and working groups. Thanks to this involvement, the cantons have the opportunity to share their concerns and needs at national and international level and to draw attention to any problems concerning the implementation of federal legal requirements.

Further reading

Introduction to the Swiss Model of Federalism / Prof. Arnold Koller Former President of the Swiss Confederation Chair of the Board of Directors of the International Conference on Federalism 2002, Conferencia Internacional sobre el Federalismo 2002

Swiss Confederation / Andreas Ladner, Swiss Confederation, 2009-08-31 Chapter 11 of Global Dialogue Volume 6: Local Government and Metropolitan Regions in Federal Systems


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