The Swiss Confederation is a small landlocked federal state in central Europe, with neighbours Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein. The country has a strong tradition of political and military neutrality, but also of international co-operation, as it is home to many international organisations. It is also known as Confoederatio Helvetica (CH), Latin for Swiss Confederation.
In 1291, representatives of the three forest cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden signed the Eternal Alliance[?]. This united them in the struggle against "foreign" rule by the Habsburgs, who then held the German imperial throne of the Holy Roman Empire. At the Battle of Morgarten in 1315, the Swiss defeated the Habsburg army and secured quasi-independence as the Swiss Confederation.
Under the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, European countries recognised Switzerland's independence from the Holy Roman Empire and its neutrality. In 1798, armies of the French Revolution conquered Switzerland. The Congress of Vienna of 1815 re-established Swiss independence and the European powers agreed to permanently recognise Swiss neutrality.
Switzerland adopted a federal constitution in 1848, amending it extensively in 1874 and establishing federal responsibility for defense, trade, and legal matters. Since then, continued political, economic, and social improvement has characterised Swiss history. The Swiss are known for their historic neutrality and did not participate in either world war. In 2002 Switzerland finally became a full member of the United Nations.
Under the 1999 constitution, cantons hold all powers not specifically delegated to the federation. The bicameral Swiss parliament, the Federal Assembly, is the primary seat of power. Both houses, the Council of States[?] and the National Council[?], have equal powers in all respects, including the right to introduce legislation. The 46 members of the Council of States (two from each canton and one from former half cantons) are directly elected in each canton, whereas the 200 members of the National Council are elected directly under a system of proportional representation. Members of both houses serve for 4 years. Through referenda people may challenge any law voted by federal parliament and through initiatives introduce amendments of the federal constitution, making Switzerland a semi-direct democracy.
The top executive body is the Federal Council, a collegial body of seven members. Although the constitution provides that the Assembly elects and supervises the members of the Council, the latter has gradually assumed a preeminent role in directing the legislative process as well as executing federal laws. The President of the Confederation is elected from the seven. During a one year term, he assumes representative functions.
The function of the Federal Supreme Courts is to hear appeals of cantonal courts or the administrative rulings of the federal administration. The judges are elected by the Federal Assembly for 6-year terms.
The Swiss landscape is characterised by the Alps, a high mountain range running across the central-south of the country. Amongst the high peaks of the Swiss Alps, the highest of which is the Dufour Peak[?] at 4,634 m, are found countless valleys, some with glaciers. From these the headwaters of several major European rivers such as the Rhine, the Rhône, the Inn, the Aare or the Ticino, flow down into lakes such as Lake Geneva, Lake Zurich and Lake Constance and farther down.
The northern, more populous part of the country is more open, but can still be fairly mountainous such as with the Jura Mountains, a smaller range in the northwest. The Swiss climate is generally temperate, but it can vary greatly locally, from the harsh conditions on the high mountains to the pleasant mediterranean clime at Switzerland's southern tip.
Switzerland is a prosperous and stable modern market economy with a per capita GDP higher than that of the big western European economies. The Swiss in recent years have brought their economic practices largely into conformity with the European Union's to enhance their international competitiveness. Although the Swiss are not pursuing full EU membership in the near term, in 1999 Bern and Brussels signed agreements to further liberalise trade ties. They continue to discuss further areas for cooperation. Switzerland is however a member of the European Free Trade Association.
Switzerland remains a safe haven for investors, because it has maintained a degree of bank secrecy and has kept up the franc's long-term external value. The GDP growth rate dipped to 1.6% in 2001, and the government projects that it will slow further to 1.3% in 2002.
Switzerland sits at the crossroads of several major European cultures, which have heavily influenced the country's languages and cultural practices. Switzerland has four official languages: German (64%) in the north and centre, French (19%) to the west, Italian (8%) in the south, and finally Romansh, a Romance language spoken by a small minority (<1%) in the southeastern canton Grisons. The German spoken here is predominantly a Swiss dialect known as Swiss German, but newspapers and some broadcasts use High German. Many Swiss speak more than one language and resident foreigners and temporary foreign workers make up about 20% of the population.
The largest religion in Switzerland is Roman Catholicism, to which some 43% of the population adhere. Various Protestant faiths number some 35% of the population, and immigration has established Islam (4%) and Eastern Orthodoxy (2%) as sizable minority religions. The remainder belongs to very small minorities or is unaffiliated. The stability and prosperity of Switzerland, combined with a linguistically and religiously diverse population has led some to describe the country as a consociational state.