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Role of the cantons

Each canton has its own constitution, its government, its parliament, its courts and its laws, though they must, of course, be compatible with those of the Confederation. The cantons enjoy a great deal of administrative autonomy and freedom of decision-making. They have independent control over their education systems and social services, and each has its own police force. Each canton also sets its own level of taxation.

In two of the smaller cantons - Appenzell Inner-Rhodes and Glarus - the people meet annually in a popular assembly, the Landsgemeinde, where each citizen can vote personally on local issues.

In the other cantons decisions are taken by elected delegates.

Economic and political developments in recent years mean that many of these local variations are now felt as a hindrance. Workers are more mobile and companies are doing business over wider areas. For this reason, and in line with the regionalisation policy of the European Union - although Switzerland is not a member - the federal authorities in 1999 grouped the cantons into seven macro regions, each focussed on a specific urban centre.

Regional intergovernmental conferences deal with matters of importance to their particular region.

The directors of departments at cantonal level - such as education - meet in the relevant cantonal directors' conferences to discuss coordination beween them.

In addition, more and more responsibilities are being transferred to the confederation. The problems and tasks of a modern society (environmental protection, traffic, social security) can no longer be dealt with in any other way.

The governments of all the cantons are represented in the Conference of Cantonal Governments, set up in 1993, to mediate between the cantons and the federal government and to help in the division of responsibilities between them. 

A group of children can't agree on where babies come from.

"They're brought by a stork," says one.

"No, silly, you find them under a bush," says another.

"Well, actually," says the third, "it all depends on the canton."


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