Constitution and Democracy

Bern, Haus der Kantone. Photo/Bild: TES.

The House of the Cantons

The opening of the House of Cantons (Haus der Kantone) in 2008 was a milestone in the cooperation between the 26 cantons. As a joint umbrella organisation of 13 governmental and 16 associated organisations of the cantons, it is a knowledge, discussion and consultation centre. It concentrates knowledge and provides a central meeting and communication infrastructure. It also facilitates cooperation between the cantons and the Confederation at national level (government, ministries and parliament) and promotes cooperation, dialogue, communication and information exchange between the cantons and the Confederation.

The governments of the 26 cantons coordinate their (sometimes divergent) interests at the federal level by means of a four-yearly Conference of cantonal governments (Konferenz der Kantonsregierungen, KdK). The KdK is primarily concerned with the renewal and further development of federalism, the division of tasks between the Confederation and the cantons, decision-making within the Confederation, the implementation of federal tasks by the cantons, and (early) communication on foreign and European policy. The director’s conferences (Direktorenkonferenzen) cover the various competences of the cantonal authorities (finance, education and culture, documentation, education, health, justice and police, social policy, forests, nature, landscape and climate, construction, planning and environment, public transport, economy, energy and agriculture).

In 1848 only minimal powers were granted to the Confederation. This principle is expressed in particular in Article 3 of the Constitution: Subsidiarity requires that all public tasks not explicitly assigned to the Confederation fall within the competence of the cantons, which (can) delegate them in part to the municipalities. In most cases, the cantons are also responsible for implementing federal policy and legislation. Only in the field of international (c.q. European) relations, defence and finance and taxation does the Confederation still have all or most of the competences (as expressed by the budget). But it is precisely then that the Council of State (the Ständerrat, the parliamentary representation of the cantons at the federal level) and the cantonal referendum (Kantonsreferendum) can influence federal decisions. In many other areas, the situation is diffuse, but the division of tasks between the Confederation and the cantons (and municipalities) has changed since 1848, and considerable powers have been transferred to the Confederation. The reorganisation of the financial system of transfers and the division of tasks (Neugestaltung des Finanzausgleichs und der Aufgabenteilung zwischen Bund und Kantonen, NFA) between the Confederation and the cantons came into force in 2008. However, the cantons have also changed in many respects since 1848, both economically, religiously, socially and in terms of population density or urban/rural development. The House of Cantons finds its raison d’être in these developments. Source and further information:; A. Vatter, Das politische System der Schweiz, Baden-Baden, 2016).