12 September 1848
15 September 2021
The present-day Swiss Confederation came into being on 12 September 1848. On that day, the parliament (Tagsatzung) approved the text after the cantons had adopted it with a majority of 15 ½ cantons against 6 ½.
Of these 6 ½ opponents (Zug, Valais, Uri, Tessin, Schwyz, Appenzell Innerrhoden (1/2), Nidwalden (1/2) and Obwalden (1/2), 3 ½ were also willing to join the majority. So, 19 ‘yes’ votes were opposed by 3 ‘no’ votes.
Most of those who voted against belonged to the Catholic Sonderbund, which had been defeated in 1847 in a short war (3-27 November) by the government forces led by General Guillaume Henri Dufour (1787-1875). Lucerne had also been a member, but all the non-voters were counted as voters in favour; the cantonal government (Grosse Rat) decided in Freiburg.
In the predominantly Protestant canton of Graubünden, the Komitialstimmen decided. The Landsgemeinde took the decisions of the cantons of Uri, Obwaldem, Nidwalden, Glarus (Catholic and Protestant), Appenzell Ausserrhoden (Protestant) and Appenzell Innerrhoden (Catholic).
The remaining 16 cantons, including the two semi-cantons Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft, held a referendum. The number of valid votes in all the cantons was 199 904, including 54 320 (27.2%) no votes.
Moreover, Nidwalden did not accept the result and was forced to accept the result by an invasion of federal troops. The canton lost the territory of the municipality and monastery of Engelberg, which were transferred to the canton of Obwalden.
The Constitution of 1848
This Constitution was an ingenious design at the right time and place in a country with different religions, languages and sovereign cantons.
The essential fundaments were the federal structure and the constitutional equality of all cantons in the Council of States (Ständerat), decentralisation, direct democracy, the Militia system and the involvement and engagement of the citizens at the political levels.
In 1875, Switzerland was one of the most modern countries in Europe and was justifiably called the laboratory of progress.
The Swiss Confederation was founded on centuries-old political, economic, personal, cultural and linguistic relationships, exchanges, experiences and systems. This Confederation created the conditions for the modernisation and industrial revolution à la Suisse.
The Constitution of 1848 was a well-thought-out political system based on this bottom-up creation and centuries of political experiences, trade and exchange.
It is irrelevant whether William Tell (Wilhelm Tell) existed or not or whether the long history of the origin of the present-day Confederacy begins in 1291, 1351, 1501, 1798 or 1848.
The fact is that unique political systems already existed in the fourteenth century and that the role of the great dynasties was finished in the fifteenth century. The Eidgenossen were independent cantons, united and cooperating in a loose confederation, despite all their differences. This Confederation survived. That is not a myth but a fact.
However, it is a myth that Switzerland was the poverty-stricken country of Europe and derived its right to exist solely from the French king’s lucrative mercenary trade and protection.
The vast majority of Switzerland was poor, but the picture is not fundamentally different from England or, for example, the Golden Age in the Netherlands, where grinding poverty prevailed outside the small circle of the well-to-do merchants and citizens.
Anyone visiting villages such as Trogen, Schwyz, Glarus or Altdorf in Central Switzerland will immediately notice the urban allure and wealth from the 14th to the 18th centuries. The same applies, for example, to the cities of Freiburg, Lucerne, Bern, Zurich, Basel, Solothurn, Geneva, St. Gallen, or Stein am Rhein. Trade, industry and innovation have always been the hallmark of the country.
The French kingdom might not have survived the expansion of the Burgundian Duchy, the military, political and cultural superpower of the fifteenth century. However, the Duke of Burgundy was defeated by the Eidgenossen (1474-1477). Afterwards, the French king needed the Eidgenossen just as much in his struggle with Habsburg as vice versa.
Prosperity always benefits from free trade. It was the concept of the Hanseatic League and the trade treaties with, for example, the Kingdom of France until 1798. Economic interdependence has always existed on the European continent; the Romans already traded with German tribes, and the Celts with the Greeks.
The European Union was founded in 1957 as an economic organisation, the EEC (European Economic Community). It has always worked rather well. It went wrong with the introduction of the monetary union in 1991 and the far too rapid enlargement in 2004 without reform of the structures of the EU. The politicians missed this unique momentum for fundamental reforms with a limited number of countries.
There is also the myth that true sovereignty is now shared with the European Union: (“La souverainité absolue est une notion dépassée, elle se comprend aujourd’hui comme de la compétence de prendre part à une décision commune, à excercer une responsabilité partagée, ce qui correspond à la tradition suisse” (Prof. A. Holenstein, Le Temps 13 September 2021).
The functioning of the European Central Bank shows that debtors determine the policy; good policy is systematically voted out. There are more examples which point in the same direction.
The EU lacks (direct) democracy, federalism, decentralisation, trias politica or subsidiarity, and a historically and organically grown political and administrative system.
The Constitution of 1848 made Switzerland’s success possible. The ‘Constitution’ and structures of the European Union do not guarantee the same success. On the contrary, with future enlargements, the democratic system will become increasingly fragile.
None of this detracts from the usefulness, value and importance of the European Union, which is irreplaceable. However, it is not a holy relic and has its fundamental weaknesses. These weaknesses should be discussed without the criticasters’ doom and gloom or condemnations.
The Canton of Glarus, for example, is capable of fundamental reforms and progressive decisions. The Landsgemeinde has divested itself of its century-old rights and tasks: electing the canton’s government.
The government is elected by secret ballots nowadays. The Landsgemeinde had reduced the number of municipalities from 25 to 3 in 2006 (it takes generations in other countries), the Landsgemeinde decided in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to allow both religions, Catholic and Protestant, the Landsgemeinde voted in 2007 in favour of voting from the age of sixteen (it is not necessarily a wise decision, but it shows the progressive nature of the Landsgemeinde) and the Landsgemeinde accepted on 5 September 2021 strict CO2 rules. The power and wisdom of decentralisation, federalism and direct democracy.
(Source: U. Häfelin, W. Haller, H. Keller, D. Thurnherr, Schweizerisches Bundesstaatsrecht, Basel 2020; www.parlament.ch).