Switzerland is a nation shaped by the
resolve of its citizens: it is not an ethnic, linguistic or religious
entity. Since 1848, it has been a federal state - one of 23 in the world
and the second oldest after the United States of America. Switzerland's
independence and neutrality
have long been honored by the major European powers and Switzerland was
not involved in either of the two World Wars. The political and economic
integration of Europe over the past half century, as well as
Switzerland's role in many UN and international organizations, may be
rendering obsolete the country's concern for neutrality.The Federal Constitution is the legal foundation of the Confederation.
It contains the most important rules for the smooth functioning of the
state. It guarantees the basic rights of the people and the
participation of the public. It distributes the tasks between the
Confederation and the cantons and defines the responsibilities of the
Switzerland is known officially as the 'Swiss
Confederation' (Latin: 'Confederatio Helvetica' or CH
on the licence plates of cars). Its
immediate neighbours are Germany, France, Italy, Austria and the
Principality of Liechtenstein. The federal capital is Bern
(134,400) where the
parliament, the government and the administration have their seat. The
largest cities are Zurich (343,100 inhabitants of the political city),
Basel (172,800), Geneva (167,700), and Lausanne
(123,100). With a total surface area of 41,285 km² and a population of
7,094,000 Switzerland is commonly designated a small state.
Structurally, Switzerland has evolved as a federal state with
member states, known as cantons and half-cantons, which have retained a
high degree of autonomy. The municipalities and communes, which number
over 3,000, also enjoy considerable rights of self-government.
According to the Federal Constitution, Switzerland has four official
national languages: German (spoken by about 65% of the population),
French (18.4%), Italian (9.8%) and Romansh (0.8%). The first three
languages listed are official languages of the federal administration.
The cantons of Berne, Fribourg and Valais are officially recognized as
bilingual (German and French), and
Graubünden (otherwise known as the
Grisons) as trilingual (German, Romansh and Italian).
Although the country has few raw materials and no direct access to the
sea, it has a highly developed economy with trading and financial
relations with countries all over the world. The economic importance of
this small country is apparent in, among other things, the gross
national product (GNP) which in 1996 amounted to 41'000 US$ per
inhabitant. This is higher than that of most other states.
Switzerland has a working population of over three million. The most
important industrial sectors are engineering and electronics, chemicals
and pharmaceuticals, the manufacture of precision instruments,
watchmaking and the textile and food industries. Banks, insurance
companies and tourism dominate the service sector.
Christianity is the dominant religion; 48% of the population are Roman
Catholic and 44% Protestant. The remaining 8% belong to other Christian
denominations or to other religions (mainly Judaism and Islam) or have
no religious faith.
heart of Switzerland is formed by the Alps. In the north, they are
composed of limestone, marl and dolomite, in the centre the crystalline
massifs consist mainly of granite and gneiss, and schist and rock
deposits form the mountains of the south. Thus each region has its
typical characteristic landscape which can be traced back to a bygone
period of the earth's history, in particular to the Ice Ages. Today, the
glaciers in the Swiss Alps number around 1,800 and cover an area of
1,340 km². The largest of them are the Aletsch, the Gorner and the
Fiescher. Agricultural exploitation of the Alps, with an average
altitude of 1,700 metres (5,100 feet) above sea level and around one
hundred peaks reaching a height of 4,000 metres (12,000 feet), is
restricted by the natural conditions and cultivation is limited to the
valley floors and sunny hillsides. Whereas the favourable conditions of
the central and southern Alps permit fruit farming and wine-growing,
livestock-raising and dairy farming prevail in the other regions.
central plateau is
Switzerland's most heavily populated area, and its hills, valleys and
plains are the home of the greater part of the Swiss population and the
site of most of the large towns. The long basin between the Jura and the
Alps, with an average altitude of 580 metres above sea level, is
composed of a mass of debris which was torn from the Alps and now forms
the marl, sandstone, nagelfluh and molasse rock. Much later, in the Ice
Ages, glaciers formed the landscape, as well as creating the conditions
for the formation of the numerous lakes. Switzerland's largest waters
are the lakes of Geneva, Constance, Neuchâtel, Lucerne, Maggiore and
Zurich. The central plateau is also the agricultural centre of
Switzerland, for it combines good climatic conditions with fertile soil
and a situation favourable to trade and enterprise. Industry is
concentrated mainly in urban centres although residential and industrial
areas are expanding at the expense of agricultural regions.