Unlike in other countries, in Switzerland no one person is ever head of state. The president of the Confederation is 'primus inter pares' – first among equals – for one year, but with the office there still comes a whole series of traditional duties and tasks.
The President of the Swiss Confederation is elected for one year of office by the United Federal Assembly. Even though the title suggests otherwise, the president of the Swiss Confederation is not head of state. This position is not held by one individual, but rather by the whole of the Federal Council, which for example collectively receives foreign heads of state on state visits. The president is 'primus inter pares' – first among equals. He or she chairs the Federal Council meetings and mediates in the case of disputes. In urgent situations the president can order precautionary measures. In the unlikely event that the Federal Council is unable to hold either an ordinary or an extraordinary meeting, the president may take a unilateral decision.
Besides the president of the Swiss Confederation, the Federal Assembly also elects the vice president of the Federal Council. The vice president is required to step in and take on all the presidial duties when the president is unable to. The Federal Council may also assign the vice president presidential powers.
Presidents of the Swiss Confederation have special representational duties during their year of office. Traditionally they give a speech at New Year and on Swiss National Day on 1 August, which is broadcast on radio and television. They also welcome the diplomatic corps – all foreign ambassadors to Switzerland – at a New Year’s reception in the Federal Palace. Since the 1990s it has been usual for the President of the Swiss Confederation to go on official visits abroad. The president is also responsible for fostering relations with the cantons.
The difference between ‘state’ and ‘presidential’ visits
A Swiss president never pays a state visit, but can still be received for a state visit by a host country. How is that possible?
The question of state visits abroad frequently causes a certain amount of confusion. First of all it is worth pointing out that in Switzerland the president is not the head of state, as is the case in other countries. That role is held by the full Federal Council, but it is extremely rare for all seven members to travel abroad together (the few exceptions being the opening of the Simplon tunnel in Domodossola in 1906 and occasional stopovers during Federal Council outings – none of which were considered state visits).
Given that the Swiss president is not the head of state, formulations such as ‘the president is paying a state visit to’ or ‘is currently on a state visit abroad’ are incorrect from a Swiss perspective; instead it is more accurate to speak of a ‘presidential visit’.
Question of perspective
For the host country, however, the situation is somewhat different. For although no one individual is considered to be head of state in Switzerland, the President of the Swiss Confederation should be accorded the same standing as his or her foreign counterparts when they meet.
Quite reasonably, other countries regard these occasions when they invite or receive the Swiss president as a ‘state visit’; the term is therefore perfectly appropriate. It is up to the country issuing the invitation to decide whether it is for a working visit, an official visit or a state visit, with the full honours dictated by protocol.
It is all a question of perspective. Swiss presidents only pay presidential visits, but on occasion are received on state visits by their foreign hosts. The concept of the state visit presents no problems when foreign heads of state come to Switzerland, because they are received by all seven members of the Federal Council.
Last modification 07.12.2016