Switzerland has now joined the UN, but still hesitates about the European Union
Switzerland is one of Europe's most mountainous countries. More than two-thirds of its territory, to the south and east, is covered by the towering peaks of the Alps. Another eighth, running along the north-west border with France, is covered by the less dramatic Jura range. Lying between these, and occupying most of the rest of the country, is a plateau around 400 metres above sea level interspersed with hills. It is within this belt of land, stretching from Lake Geneva in the south-west to the Bodensee on the north-east border with Germany, that most industrial and agricultural activity takes place, and where most people live.
Switzerland's population is formed by a conjunction of three European cultures: German, French, and Italian. A highly decentralized form of government, based on semi-autonomous states or ‘cantons’, has enabled these cultures to coexist and thrive. Switzerland thus has three official languages. The German-speaking majority live mostly in the north and east; the French in the south-west; and the Italian in the south-east. There is also a fourth, though not official, set of dialects—Romansch—which are also spoken in the cantons bordering on Italy.
Cultural diversity is further intensified by a large immigrant community, which makes up around 20% of the population. Around one-fifth are Italian, and another 14%, more recent arrivals, are from former Yugoslavia. These workers are very diverse: some are highly paid international business managers and bureaucrats; others are seasonal agricultural workers or hotel staff.
Poorly endowed with productive natural resources, Switzerland has relied for survival on the skills and ingenuity of its people. As with most richer countries, around two-thirds of the workforce are employed in service industries. In Switzerland, however, one of the most significant of these is banking: Swiss banks manage about a third of all private financial assets invested across borders, and financial services are about 9% of GDP and employ 3% of the workforce. Banking secrecy laws have contributed to this success. However, following the global financial crisis, which in 2009 required a bail-out for the largest bank, USB, the government was obliged by international pressure to weaken these laws. It is also negotiating double-taxation agreements with several countries.
Industry in Switzerland has been weighted towards higher levels of technology in such areas as chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and the manufacture of precision instruments and watches. Engineering and food processing are also important.
Swatch repels the Japanese challenge
The perennial strength of the Swiss franc hampers exports, but heavy investment in research has kept Switzerland at the technological leading edge. A notable achievement was that of the Swatch watch company in fending off the digital challenge from Japan. For a small country, Switzerland is also home to many multinationals, including CIBA, ABB, and Nestlé.
Agriculture, whether growing crops on the plain or rearing livestock in the mountains, employs less than 4% of the workforce but is very productive and meets around 60% of local needs. It is also highly protected, and the expensive food produced encourages many Swiss to stock up in neighbouring countries.