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Happy Birthday, Switzerland!

Switzerland remains a crossroads of cultures and communication.

Come any time, wear what you like (fancy dress or national costume not compulsory). A good deal of the festivities are free, despite the saying, 'No money, no Swiss'. 'Utopia' has been chosen as the theme for Switzerland's 700th birthday celebrations. 2,540 kilometres of manicured and signposted footpaths lead to the meadow where the original oath between the founding cantons was sworn.

The occasion provides an opportunity to look at the values and institutions for which Switzerland is famed - 176 years of neutrality at the heart of war-torn Europe, ancient community-level democratic customs, international service (remember the Red Cross), efficiency and hard work. It is a chance, too, to go beyond the cliches - the tourist pictures of the Matterhorn, the record consumption of cheese and chocolate, the watches, cuckoo-clocks and musical boxes, the Swiss army penknives.

When it comes to stereotypes, Switzerland is not what it used to be. The trains still run on time, but the post has just gone over to two rates, two speeds, neither of them as reliable as in 'the good old days'. Switzerland's long domination of Alpine skiing contests has come to an end. There is even a court case pending, where a onetime city-dweller is suing his farmer neighbour over the noise of his cow-bells.

Confronted by their anniversary, the Swiss feel uneasily that they are at a turning point. In an open letter to his grandson, the journalist Claud Monnier maintains that the Swiss must now embark on 'a future outside ourselves'. He sees his countrymen hesitating, with one foot on the train and the other on the platform. The most discussed destination is membership of the European Community.

Many Swiss were not sure how to mark this birthday. The original plans for a monster celebration were voted down by several cantons, and a more modest, decentralized plan has been adopted. A number of mainly Swiss-German authors and artists are boycotting the celebrations altogether. Some have gone as far as to say, '700 years is quite enough.'

Part of the difficulty is that there is not one Switzerland, but many. One cannot even easily divide the country into language groups and areas. The whole country is half the size of the US state of Maine, yet each of its 26 cantons and half-cantons is a little country in itself with its own history, traditions and administration.

Lengthy negotiations have at last led to agreement between the cantons on starting the school year at the same time (autumn), to help children whose parents move a few kilometres across a border. There is no national police force. There are even different electrical standards: when we got our flat in Geneva, friends from the neighbouring canton of Vaud offered us a stove. We had to return it when we discovered that Vaud ran on 220 volts and Geneva on 320 (for cookers)!

Switzerland is far better known worldwide than her size and importance would allow. As each nation is a product of its own history, it is debatable whether one country can serve as a model for others. In spite of this, many have looked to Switzerland, and still do - South African constitution-makers, Lebanese, Yugoslavs... Can the cantonal system be exported? Can others learn from the Swiss magic of maintaining unity and differences? From her example of social peace and hard work?

The Swiss themselves share this heightened view of their place in the scheme of things. They are certainly different - and if different, why not a little better? They stood ready to defend their neutrality through World War II, but many fail to see that the long years of peace may owe as much to the blessings of their geography, behind the ramparts of the Alps, as to their virtues. The Poles and Afghans might have cherished neutrality just as zealously, if only their powerful neighbours had allowed them to.

Historians agree that Switzerland grew up around the great mountain passes and north-south commerce routes, particularly the St Gothard Pass into Italy. None of the great European powers wanted to see such vital lines of communication controlled by an enemy. So they agreed in 1815 to leave Switzerland neutral. The country's present borders date from the same year and its constitution, as a federal republic with a strictly limited central authority, from 1848.

Switzerland has no natural resources beyond the beauty and hydro-electrical potential of its mountains and its geographical position at the centre of Europe. Only a century ago, impoverished Swiss were emigrating to escape this poor little backwater. Since then Switzerland has made itself one of the richest countries in the world by living on its wits - and by the diligence of its people. Even the national day, 1st August, is not a holiday. There is reputed to be a sign in a German university dormitory: 'Italians are not permitted to sing after 11 pm. Swiss are not allowed to get up before 5 am.'

Since 1937, employers and trade unions have applied 'social peace agreements' that have virtually outlawed strikes. Unemployment rarely touches the psychological shock level of one percent, though this is in part due to a careful control of the supply of foreign, temporary, so-called 'seasonal' workers. 'The Swiss live - in total harmony', proclaims a tourist brochure in a happy Freudian slip.

'Switzerland isn't a country, it's a bank,' says the former President of the German Bundesbank, Karl Otto Pohl. Strict laws to outlaw the laundering of drug money and to end abuse of banking secrecy are now at last in force. But Pierre Centlivres of the University of Neuchatel's Institute of Ethnology says that Swiss confidence has been shaken by recent scandals - the resignation of the first woman cabinet minister after she warned her husband that a firm he was involved in was under investigation; the discovery of security files on one person in six, set up without democratic controls; the enthusiasm of dictators for Swiss bank accounts.

For all this, the Swiss image in the outside world is largely untarnished, according to a recent survey. And international opinion matters to the Swiss. 'The picture we have of our country is imported,' says Swiss-German author Peter Bichsel. 'We live on a legend that others have built around us.'

The very name of the country, it seems, was coined abroad. The founding cantons called themselves 'the confederates'; it was their 14th century military exploits led by the canton of Schwyz which provoked foreigners to call them 'Swiss'. Today "they retain CH - 'Confederatio Helvetica' - on their cars.

Neutrality should not be confused with pacifism. Switzerland is ready to defend itself with one of the largest armies in Europe, made up of over 600,000 citizen soldiers, each with his rifle and ammunition at home. The basement of our block of flats is a fall-out shelter, that of the school next door a civil defence control centre; the mountains reveal hollowed-out fortresses, reinforced concrete chalets, doors in cliffs which hide jet fighters. In the event of nuclear war, the Swiss could sit it out in their shelters and emerge to inherit the earth. Yet in a 1989 referendum, nearly 36 per cent voted for the suppression of the army.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the referendum - one of the pillars of Switzerland's direct democracy. Any citizen who can collect 100,000 signatures in 18 months can call for a nationwide vote. There have been 186 - and only 10 have found grace in the eyes of the people. In 1986, the Swiss voted three-to-one against joining the United Nations, against the recommendations of government and parliament, despite - or perhaps because of - housing the UN's European headquarters in Geneva.

Last year democracy reached the last quaint bastion of male domination, when the federal court forced one half-canton of Appenzel to allow women to vote in cantonal elections. (In the other half-canton, the men voted freely in favour of the change at their annual open air landsgemeinde. Watching on television, I thought I saw as many hands raised against the motion as for. The suspicion lurked that the cantonal authorities had already decided which way the vote should go.)

The downside of Switzerland's system is that the largest political party is that of the abstainers: a good 60 per cent are members, and the party is growing. Important decisions are left to the small minorities who bother to vote. A saddening 80 per cent reckon that political decisions are out of their control - although 60 per cent feel that they have control over their own lives.

'Direct democracy does not make for easy government,' notes Georges-Andre Chevallaz, a former President of the Confederation. 'The fear of a referendum is not necessarily the beginning of wisdom.' With 26 cantonal legal and educational systems, parliaments and administrations, Switzerland's structures are complex. Yet taxes and social charges only make up 32 per cent of GNP, which compares well with her European neighbours. There is little flab or waste.

'Switzerland is less of a country than an amalgam of oppositions - local, regional, traditional, religious, linguistic,' Chevallaz goes on. It is a gathering of resistances: against domination by any one person (thus the collegial structure at all levels, with a rotating presidency) and against central power. He notes with pride that two thirds of public finances remain in the control of the communes and cantons.

For more than a quarter of a century Switzerland has been governed under the so-called 'magic formula', by which the four main parties, representing over 90 per cent of the voters, share in a permanent coalition government. This makes for boring politics. We watch French television news with a certain gratitude for Swiss harmony and consensus, but also with a nostalgia for conflict, debate, anger, edge.

It is something of a shock to discover that Switzerland has the highest rates in Europe of drug abuse deaths, teenage suicides and AIDS. Like her neighbours, she shows signs of being a sick society, where all too many young people do not find their place or a reason for living. There are estimated to be some 500,000 people below the poverty line (in a population of 6.7 million), though reliable statistics do not exist.

Since the student unrest of 1968, there has been little to upset the calm onward flow of life, few political storms or rallying causes - except, perhaps, the environment. A 26-year-old writer notes, 'The truth is that the world seems to offer infinite possibilities to young people today: all paths are possible, there are no frontiers left, but they don't know how to choose an aim and pick a course. When you can go in any direction, why go in one?' This apathy is a dangerous portent for the future. Are the organizers of the 700th anniversary celebrations the last to believe in utopia?

The commentator Jose Ribaud believes that never since the Second World War has the unity of the country been so under threat, this time from the forces set in play by the movement towards European unity. The problem is not so much open hostility between the language groups as deep and reciprocal indifference.

Switzerland is a multilingual country - 65 per cent German, 18 per cent French, 10 per cent Italian, one per cent Romanche - but not all the Swiss are polylingual. Ribaud notes that in the federal parliament the language groups speak to their own group and rarely listen to the translation. In Fribourg and Berne, 30 per cent of 15- to 30-year-olds use English to communicate with those of another language community.

Claude Monnier (quoted at the start of this article) feels that Switzerland could disperse, different parts of the puzzle dropping away from the Confederation towards neighbouring countries - the north to Germany, south to Italy, west to France. Already a city like Geneva seems more concerned with its links with France than with its ties to the rest of the country.

The idea of Europe is gaining ground. Only four years ago a federal minister wrote, 'As things stand, and this won't change, there is no question of us joining the European Community.' A year later, moves began to create an agreement between the EC and the six countries of the European Free Trade Association, to which Switzerland belongs. Now, as I write, the same man has just announced that the federal government must, as a priority, study the question of Switzerland joining the EC. The latest poll shows opinion evenly balanced on the membership question - but with 60 per cent of French-speakers in favour.

Some Swiss fear that their precious democratic heritage will vanish in the European melting pot. Others optimistically suggest that the EC countries might learn from Switzerland's example of direct participation. And while other candidates for EC membership feel community standards are too high, the Swiss worry that EC norms will force them to accept lower environmental, safety and quality levels.

Mahmoud Lavassani, an Iranian who has lived in Switzerland for 13 years now, has just written a book in Arabic about his adopted country. He notes an 'emptiness' in Swiss life. 'The motives of previous generations are no longer enough. Filling your stomach and your wallet are not adequate ideals. Switzerland today must open up or suffocate. She must find great humanitarian, even spiritual, aspirations. She runs the risk of losing the inheritance of these 700 years of history if she does not learn to put herself at the service of the world.'

This is not to downplay the existing service record of the Swiss - another foreign observer has called them 'the St Bernard dogs of international politics'. Individual Swiss raise millions of francs overnight to help earthquake victims in the south of Italy or radiation casualties around Chernobyl. In response to a petition that gathered 250,000 signatures, the federal parliament has just voted a 700 million Swiss franc birthday present for debt relief and projects in the Third World.

The International Red Cross is without doubt the best known example of Switzerland at the service of the world. But it is not alone. The UN European headquarters in Geneva holds 6,000 meetings a year. Since 1946, thousands of people have participated in the Moral Re-Armament conferences in Caux, which have been credited with playing a part in the reconciliation and reconstruction of post war Europe.

In spite of the strains, Switzerland's approach to diversity offers a model for Europe. The country is a living example of the subsidiarity talked about at Strasbourg and Brussels - all decisions are taken at the lowest reasonable level. Part of the secret is that the language minorities get more than their fair share of the cake - for example, they get a bigger slice of the total television budget than their population would justify.

Carl Jung - a great Swiss sometimes forgotten in his country - once said, 'It wouldn't be too bad a role for Switzerland to incarnate the heaviness, the inertia of the European earth, and thus play the part of a centre of gravity.' Switzerland remains a crossroads of cultures and communication. At a time when - for the first time in history - over half the world's nations are democracies (if we are generous in our judgments), her experience is worthy of study. As Yannis Papadopoulos, Lausanne's professor of political science, maintains, 'Many countries in crisis would be jealous of the social peace, the consensus, and the inclusion of opponents that are realities here.



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