While Switzerland is notorious for being synonymous with neutrality, an important territorial conflict is up for referendum on November 24. The canton of Jura and parts of Jura which are located in the neighbouring canton of Bern, will vote for the potential reunification of the districts. As a result, this would create a “Greater Jura” canton. The matter, which similarly to Canada became militant in the 1960s and 70s, is being termed crucial by reunification advocates. On the other hand, the majority of the population sees the issue as irrelevant. Whichever the case, the call to referendum on such an issue sheds further light on the possibilities of direct democracy, and offers a noteworthy perspective to the Quebec separation debate.
The scheduled referendum could put an end to the most significant territorial struggle in modern Switzerland, which began with the area known as Jura being awarded to the canton of Bern in the 19th century. Although four major languages characterize Switzerland, a national identity seems to be entrenched across various citizens countrywide. Nonetheless, there are significant degrees of cultural different between the two involved cantons. The Jura region is considered a predominantly French-speaking, Roman Catholic region, while Bern is a German-Protestant canton. Language and religious matters were at the heart of the initial conflict, and called nation identity into question. The Jurassians essentially felt that their interests were not represented, left with the impression of economic and cultural ostracism.
The first half of the 20th century saw requests for Jura’s independence and separation from Bern, leading to the eventual creation of the country’s 26th canton. This was the direct result of the conflict’s militant nature in the 1960s and 70s. Jurassians advocated for their right to sovereignty from the canton of Bern, stating the existence of a collective identity among them. The opposition felt there were no real grounds for separation, cultural or otherwise, ultimately fearing the threats of a national linguistic imbalance. However, the separation of the Jura areas eventually saw three districts remain a part of the larger canton of Bern.
The current vote aims to clarify this separation, potentially reunifying these districts with the canton Jura. Those who had fought for the initial split see the decision as crucial, with the potential of both bringing improved representation on the national level, and long awaited closure to the issue. Beyond Jura however, little excitement is felt- namely in the Jura districts of Bern that are at the heart of the present conflict. Many believe that the movement has not only lost its momentum, but that the integration of these districts into canton Jura would in fact be disadvantageous economically due to Bern’s influence on both the national and global scale. Simultaneously, language and religious debates no longer seem of much interest to the modern Swiss.
While a majority believes the Jura districts will ultimately remain part of Bern, the issue has gained media attention worldwide for its demonstration of strong Swiss direct democracy. Decisions of separation and unification are typically taken at a federal level, making Switzerland’s bottom-up approach, even for matters that are pertinent to the entire nation, a model for democracies everywhere.
While parallels have been drawn to similar conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Basque country of Spain, a comparison to the Quebec/Canada separation conflict seems most appropriate. The Quebec separation question takes place from the bottom within the province itself. However, at the federal level, the government stated it would not recognize an outcome in favour of independence. Although larger issues are at play, including Canada’s significant geography, the Swiss conflict is akin to Quebec separatism as the federal government is seemingly denying a people who believe they hold a distinct collective identity. Although Switzerland’s low voter threshold to incite a country wide referendum can potentially clog their parliamentary sessions, this type of democracy would be exemplary for Canada, a nation abound with cultural identities.