Switzerland: the Country Without a Capital City

Peruse just about any map of Europe, and you will see Bern identified as the capital city of Switzerland. Don’t believe everything you see. The nation that is famously neutral in all international matters is likewise unwilling to commit to any of its cities to be its seat of government.

To understand how this can be, it is important to realize that Switzerland developed out of an alliance of 26 self-governing territories called cantons. These cantons came together as a federal nation in 1848. Much like the Articles of Confederation that bound together the original 13 states of the United States, the Swiss government placed a strong emphasis on the semi-autonomy of these cantons. While they are united as one country, there is a strong predisposition toward avoiding a strong centralized government.

Switzerland, divided into cantons. (Click image to expand)

When it came time to formalize their national status in a constitution, the cantons were reluctant to give any one canton or region of the country any kind of exalted status by allowing one of them to have the national capital. The fear is that this could lead to a strong central government and infringe upon the rights retained by the cantons. When the constitution was drafted and each time it has been revised or replaced, the document intentionally omits any reference to a national capital city.

Not having a capital city doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for government or government buildings. The Swiss address this issue by spreading the federal buildings throughout the country. The Federal Assembly meets in Bern, while the Federal Criminal Court is found in Bellinzona and the Supreme Court in Lausanne. Since Bern is the home of the legislature, it is typically identified on maps as the capital city, albeit in error.

In 2002 a tripartite committee was charged by the Swiss Federal Council to prepare the “creation of a federal law on the status of Bern as a Federal City,” and to weigh the pros and cons of such. The work of the committee was suspended by the Swiss Federal Council after two years, and work on this subject has not resumed since.

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