Decision-taking at meetings of the Federal Council

Dispatches and reports to parliament, answers to parliamentary questions, amendments to ordinances, expenditure, elections: the Federal Council has countless decisions to take, and takes them at its meetings. Three principles are key: preparation, collegiality, consensus. 

The Federal Council in its chamber in the west wing of the Federal Palace
The Federal Council in its chamber in the west wing of the Federal Palace.

The Federal Council receives its mandates from parliament. By far the most decisions then relate to matters that are referred back to parliament. These include

  • dispatches on amendments to acts of parliament and the Constitution
  • information and opinions on political proposals
  • reports on mandates received from parliament
  • the budget and the annual financial statements
  • the legislature plan, the annual goals and the annual report.

Careful preparation

Before any item of business is placed before the members of the Federal Council, it goes through various stages, all under the watchful eye of the Federal Chancellery. After a draft from a department goes through the office consultation procedure, the departmental head responsible signs the final proposal. Federal Council colleagues have the opportunity to comment on it in a joint reports procedure. Only when this procedure is completed and the Federal Council has checked the formal and legal aspects is the matter is placed on the agenda for the Federal Council meeting.

All aspects considered

Preparation helps to achieve consensus and ensure quality. All aspects of any problem should be carefully thought through, in particular the legal and financial issues. Differences of opinion between departments should be identified as early as possible and solutions found that all concerned can live with. The Federal Council should be able to concentrate on the key political issues. 

Collegiality and consensus as the guidelines

"The Federal Council reaches its decisions as a collegial body" states the Federal Constitution. Decisions are taken jointly. All Federal Council members must stand by the decisions in their external dealings, even if a decision may not accord with their personal views or the policy of their party.

The Swiss culture of consensus is also shared by the Federal Council. This means that the Federal Council seeks amicable solutions, rather than trying to enforce personal opinions by securing a majority. The desire for consensus echoes the view that a decision can only take permanent effect if all the decision makers can support it, even if they have certain reservations. Reaching a consensus can be a demanding and protracted process. This is taken into account in the preparations made for Federal Council business.

Powers in exceptional situations

In the event of war, social unrest or natural disasters, swift action is often needed. In such cases, the Federal Constitution gives the Federal Council the power to deviate from the normal legislative procedure.

Under Article 185 paragraph 3 of the Federal Constitution, the Federal Council "may in direct application of this Article issue ordinances and rulings in order to counter existing or imminent threats of serious disruption to public order or internal or external security. Such ordinances must be limited in duration“. These ordinances apply for a maximum of six months, unless Federal Council submits a draft of legislation on the matter to parliament before that deadline.

In urgent cases, the Federal Council can mobilise the Armed Forces. If it calls up more than 4000 troops for active service, or if the deployment is expected to last longer than three weeks, parliament must be convened immediately.

Last modification 29.01.2024

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