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As Switzerland is situated in the heart of Europe, one might suggest that Switzerland must automatically also be part of the European Union (EU), a big regional supranational organization counting 27 European member states. However, this is not the case. Even though there have been discussions in Switzerland about joining the EU or its predecessors, efforts to do so failed in a popular referendum. On an economic level, Switzerland likes to cooperate with the EU. Nevertheless, once it comes to broader political agreements, Switzerland, for various reasons, is often less eager for such cooperation.

The direct democracy is the most obvious reason preventing Switzerland from EU membership.

Even though Switzerland shares many political and economic ties and certain values with other EU states, it differs from most of them in essentially two ways: the direct democracy and the concept of neutrality. Whereas the most common form of democracy in Western European countries is the indirect democracy, Switzerland is a direct democracy, which gives the electorate the right to express their opinion about decisions that were taken by the parliament through referenda. Furthermore, the electorate may propose amendments to the constitution by starting a so-called popular initiative. One of Switzerland’s best-known political analysts, Claude Longchamp, argues that the direct democracy is the most obvious reason preventing Switzerland from EU membership. Many Swiss people fear that EU accession would limit their rights to political participation and that some EU authority would reverse some decisions taken in popular referenda. Furthermore, to join the EU, not only would the majority of the electorate have to accept EU membership, but also the majority of the cantons. But the latter in particular would be very difficult to achieve.

The fact that Switzerland is not part of the EU makes it appear even more neutral than other neutral EU states.

Another singularity about Switzerland it its neutrality. The concept of neutrality goes back centuries in Switzerland and is both domestically and internationally widely recognized. The Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation sets out that the preservation of Swiss neutrality is a joint task of the Federal Council (FC) and the Parliament (Art. 173 and 185). One of the main characteristics of the Swiss neutrality is the fact that it’s permanent, which means that the country has proven to stay neutral, no matter where a war is breaking out, who is fighting it etc. The fact that Switzerland is not part of the EU may make it appear even more neutral than other neutral states like Austria or Sweden, which are indeed EU members. Neutrality is very important for Switzerland, as it helps the country to promote its good offices and a position for Geneva as a host city for many international organizations and meetings.

“National independence is part of our history and identity.”

Moreover, many Swiss see themselves as freedom-loving and independent people who stand up to foreign rulers who try to exercise power over them. On February 25, 2021, former Swiss president Ignazio Cassis said that “national independence is part of our history and identity”. Those values are rooted in the story of William Tell, the key myth for the creation of the Swiss Confederation, according to which a Swiss man, William Tell, stood up against the Habsburgs, an imperial Austrian family that ruled over large parts of what is now German-speaking Switzerland. Those values of freedom and independence are also among the reasons that hold the Swiss back from sending an application for EU membership to Brussels and “Fremde Richter” (German for: foreign judges) has become a political slogan against EU accession.

“Switzerland is too rich and too stable to want to join the EU.”

Furthermore, economic factors play a key role in the debate about Switzerland joining the EU. Switzerland is very prosperous and is one of the most politically stable countries in the world. Fabio Wasserfallen, a professor for European policy at the University of Bern, argues that “Switzerland is too rich and too stable to want to join the EU”. He also argues that many factors that play a role in other European countries’ decision to join the EU are not relevant to Switzerland. “On the one hand, Switzerland is not exposed to Russia, so the security aspect is missing. Unlike Spain or Greece, which still suffered from dictatorships in the 20th century, there is no desire to join from the point of view of political stability.” Also, from an economic perspective, joining the EU is no longer attractive for Switzerland after the eastward’s expansion of the EU, as most Eastern European countries are generally less prosperous than their Western counterparts. From the Swiss perspective, one of the biggest problems of EU accession is the wealth gap within the EU. Since Switzerland is a wealthy country, it would definitely be one of the net contributors to the EU, which means that it would pay more into the EU than it would get out of it. It can also be said that the fact that the EU apparently had difficulties in dealing with the eurozone crisis did not necessarily boost Switzerland’s willingness to join the EU.

There are numerous reasons why Switzerland has not pursued EU membership in the past and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future.

Concluding, Switzerland’s unique blend of direct democracy, neutrality, and economic prosperity underpins its decision to remain outside the European Union. The Swiss cherish their direct involvement in decision-making and fear losing it to EU authorities. Neutrality, a cornerstone of Swiss identity, is upheld fiercely, distinguishing Switzerland even from other neutral EU members. The nation’s historical narrative of independence and resistance further fuels the reluctance towards EU membership. Economically robust and politically stable, Switzerland sees little incentive to join an EU grappling with internal challenges and disparities.


Image : Wikimedia Commons

Daniel Möckli, “Switzerland and the EU: Challenges and Uncertainties of Bilateralism”, CSS ETH Zurich, CSS Analysis in Security Policy, No. 81, (October 2010), p. 1-3

Daniel Möckli, “Switzerland and the EU: The Prospects of Bilateralism”, CSS ETH Zurich, CSS Analysis in Security Policy, Vol. 3, No. 37, (July 2008), p. 1-3

“Direct Democracy”, FDFA,, April 6, 2024

Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA, Directorate for European Affairs DEA “Switzerland and the European Union”, (Bern, 2016), (2nd revised edition), p. 21-35

Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA, “Swiss neutrality”, (Bern, 2022), p. 4-13

“President Amherd and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen open negotiations between Switzerland and the EU”, FDFA,, April 6, 2024

“Switzerland and the EU: cooperation and negotiation”, FDFA,, April 6, 2024

“Why Switzerland doesn’t want to join the European Union”, Swissinfo,, April 6, 2024

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