Switzerland country profile - Overview
- 1 January 2016
- From the section Europe
A landlocked, mountainous country, Switzerland's geographical position in central Europe and studied neutrality have given it the access and political stability to become one of the world's wealthiest countries.
Switzerland has for centuries been a neutral state, which means that it cannot take part in armed conflict unless it is attacked. Its forces can only be used for self-defence and internal security.
It joined the United Nations only in 2002. Surrounded by the European Union, it has vacillated between seeking closer engagement with its powerful neighbour and other international organisations, and preferring a more isolationist course.
Although it lies close to the geographical centre of Europe, and most of its trade is with its European neighbours, it is not an EU member. A referendum in 2001 went against opening talks on joining.
Membership of the European Economic Area was also rejected by referendum in 1992 and Swiss-EU relations are now based on an extensive range of bilateral agreements.
Ties became closer in 2005 when a referendum backed membership of the EU Schengen and Dublin agreements, bringing Switzerland into Europe's passport-free zone and increasing cooperation on crime and asylum issues. A further referendum the same year opened the job market to workers from the 10 newest EU member countries.
At about the same time, Switzerland gradually began to accede to international pressure to allow greater scrutiny of its famously secretive banking sector, amid growing concerns about money-laundering and the financing of terrorist groups.
The country forms a European cultural and linguistic crossroads, with about two-thirds of the population speaking German, around one-fifth French and about 7% Italian. Romansch, the fourth national language, is spoken by less than 1% of the population.
The people are given a direct say in their own affairs under Switzerland's system of direct democracy, which has no parallel in any other country.
They are invited to the polls several times a year to vote in national or regional referendums and people's initiatives. Constitutional proposals and major international treaties must be put to the vote, and parliamentary decisions can be subjected to a vote by collecting 50,000 signatures.
The question of immigration came to the forefront of public debate in the early 21st century, as foreign nationals - overwhelmingly from the rest of Europe, including Turkey - rose to number 20% of the population. The anti-immigration Swiss People's Party became the largest party in parliament in 2009, and minarets on mosques were banned in a referendum in 2009.
The government has taken steps to cut immigration from eastern Europe, and in 2014 a proposal to limit immigration from EU countries was narrowly approved in a referendum.
The tradition of a citizen army, seen as an essential part of Swiss neutrality, runs deep. During the Cold War the Swiss maintained one of Europe's largest land-based armies. The extremely costly militia system, under which every adult male was conscripted and remained in the reserves until middle age, has been slowly streamlined.
The government expressed its regrets over the country's behaviour in World War II following a report by an independent panel of historians on Swiss relations with the Nazis. The report found that the authorities had known what lay in store for the Jewish refugees to whom they closed their borders in 1942, and had assisted the economy of Nazi Germany, although not to a degree that prolonged the war.