The Curious Case of Switzerland
3rd October 2020
Fenced in on all sides at the centre of Europe, Switzerland is a curious case to stand alone. And yet alone is exactly
how it has stood on numerous occasions throughout history. Declaring itself neutral in wartime and opting out of the
European Union when the general consensus was to opt in, Switzerland has nonetheless garnered a deserved reputation for
economic and political stability. But how does a landlocked, mountainous nation with few natural resources and a culture
seen by many as rather insular, prosper in a world where we’re continuously drilled that there’s ‘strength in unity’?
There’s no denying Switzerland’s place on the world stage. The country consistently ranks amongst the world’s wealthiest
nations, its major cities amongst the most desirable places to live and its currency - the ever reliable Swiss Franc,
continues to prevail against the dollar and the Euro even in these uncertain economic times.
Evidently much more than a nation of high peaks, chocolate box villages and cowbells, Switzerland is an interesting model
for the curious observer. Here we explore five key components that have contributed to the continued success of this
fascinating country and its people...
The Swiss are not bound by a common language or religion. Four official languages are spoken within the country’s 41,000
square kilometres - German, French, Italian and Romansch - and a fifth - English, is increasingly in use. Rather the people
of this nation are bound by common principals and ideals - a shared belief in direct democracy and a neutral stance on
military affairs; a shared faith in the division of legislative and political powers between central government and the
regions; a shared pursuit of excellence through hard work, discipline and innovation. The Swiss are fiercely proud of
their country and what it stands for, a pride that is - in typical Swiss fashion - both deep-rooted and understated.
Given its longstanding policy of neutrality, few people realise that Switzerland has an Army, an Air Force, and perhaps
most surprisingly given its geographic location, a navy fleet! All Swiss men - if found suitable on screening - are
lawfully required to complete a period of part time military service, and until changes to the law in 2007, to keep their
personally assigned weapons and ammunition at home (the new policy dictates that the weapon, but not the ammunition, must
reside with its owner).
The country’s centuries old stance to remain neutral in military affairs has received its fair share of controversy, most
notably for its continuing to trade with the Nazis during World War Two. However, on balance, its refusal to take sides
in conflict, has earned Switzerland more friends than enemies. A long tradition of providing humanitarian aid both at
home and abroad, along with its being home to the headquarters of international organisations such as the World Health
Organisation, the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières, ensures that Switzerland still plays a pivotal role in world
Natural Resources are somewhat scarce in Switzerland; the Swiss economy is largely built on tertiary industries and the
added value the nation’s super-skilled workforce is able to apply to imported raw materials. However, one resource the
Swiss do have in abundance is water! Glacial melt and run off from the snowfall on the Alps (which cover three fifths
of Switzerland’s land area), is harnessed and utilised to generate electricity. In fact, close to 60% of domestic power
is generated in this way through the country’s network of approximately 650 hydro-electric power plants. Much of this
electricity is used to power the world renowned Swiss rail network ensuring the timely arrival of goods (and passengers)
that keep the economy moving!
In terms of global competitiveness, Switzerland has always transcended what might be expected of a small nation with
just eight-million inhabitants, though perhaps not the expectations of the Swiss themselves! A quick perusal of the
World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Report reveals that Switzerland ranked first for skills, and a
commendable fifth overall.
Switzerland’s status as a centre of excellence for skills development owes itself to a host of factors including the
nation’s commitment to spending on education, technology and science, its focus on high-quality vocational training
and - in no small part - the sustained levels of motivation of the Swiss workforce. A number of highly specialised
industries stand out: chemicals, pharmaceuticals, precision instruments, watches to name but a few, and of course the
well known banking and tourism sectors, but the Swiss economy has depth and diversity, and the super-skilled workforce
it employs are integral to the country’s impressive international trade surplus.
Power of the People
Swiss Democracy - a form of direct democracy where the people really do have the power to shape policy, is something
of a mystery to many people outside of the alpine nation. Most modern democracies are so-called ‘representative
democracies’, in which people vote for candidates to become their representatives, and subsequently decide policy on
their behalf. In Switzerland, at the municipality, canton and federal level of government, citizens are able to
influence policy without an intermediary. Eligible voters can propose changes to the constitution through a ‘popular
initiative’ and referendums on certain key political issues are mandatory.
These tools of direct democracy have not surprisingly led to referendums being held on a whole host of diverse issues,
such as United Nations membership, abolition of the army and changes to the working week, and whilst the impact of
people power is quite often dismissed as minimal, this form of democracy does, if nothing else, force the government
to secure a wider consensus on issues of national interest.
And so it is clear...
Switzerland’s success over the last 150 years is in large parts due to its geopolitical stance. Unlike most of Europe,
the country’s economic and human resources were not ravaged by two world wars, and by opting out of the European Union,
Switzerland has subsequently been able to negotiate its own bilateral agreements in the interest of both parties. A
unique, breathtakingly beautiful nation with an abundance of literal and metaphorical riches, Switzerland’s desire to
stand alone somehow seems to draw us closer...