Switzerland's reputation and impact in the world are significant. Its banks and financial institutions are among the largest in the world; its products - as diverse as pharmaceuticals, watches, and chocolate - are widely used and respected; and its scenery and sports facilities, especially its skiing, are world-famous.
Switzerland boasts a diverse cultural heritage and a mix of interesting people who are at once independent, reserved and conservative, efficient and productive, responsible and serious, political, and courteous.
The Swiss can be difficult to get to know, but over time, they can become the most genuine friends.
Switzerland is a federal state with a decentralized government. It is divided into 20 full cantons, and six half cantons, with more than 3,000 municipalities known as communes. Each level of government maintains a high degree of autonomy, resulting in differences from canton to canton, such as school curricula or insurance requirements.
The federal government has exclusive responsibility for foreign affairs, national defense, customs, post and telecommunications, railways, civil, criminal and industrial legislation, and some aspects of social security and taxes. The constitution of 1848 established a system of initiatives and referendums to assure that the final word remained with the people. Thus, for issues other than defense, the popular vote directly determines policy issues and actions.
A four-party coalition dominates the parliament. The coalition has had a system of sharing the presidency since 1959, known as the the magic formula. They have agreed to rotate the presidency among members of the four parties who have won the largest number of seats in parliament for the four-year life of each parliament.
The Federal Council, the senior executive body of government, comprises seven members elected by members of parliament. The president is chosen to serve one year of each four-year electoral cycle on the nomination of the Federal Council. Parliament is made up of two houses. The National Council is the Lower House and consists of 200 members elected for 4-year terms to represent the population as a whole. The upper house is called the Council of States and has 46 seats - two from each canton regardless of the size of the population.
Switzerland's famous neutrality and avoidance of political or military alliances is not reflective of a passive nation. The country has a policy of armed neutrality with an army of more than 500,000 fully trained reservists or citizen militia prepared to defend Swiss independence.
Switzerland continues to remain outside the European Union, as well as the European Economic Area (EEA). In the past 10 years, Switzerland and the EU member states increased their ecomonic and social security cooperation after signing seven bilateral agreements, including the Agreement on the Free Movement of People. Further bilateral talks yielded cooperative agreements on banking, taxation, and other economic matters, as well as participation in the Schengen agreements. Despite its centric geographic location and long-standing Swiss-EU cooperation, many Swiss are unswayed in their opposition to joining the EU.
The relationship between Switzerland and the EU is governed by more than 100 technical agreements. In March 2002, the Swiss voted to become members of the United Nations.
Key economic sectors include microtechnology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, banking and insurance. Its highly skilled work force contributes to one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world. The unemployment rate at the start of the second quarter of 2012 was 3.1 percent.
Foreigners may find the Swiss more formal and reserved than others they are used to doing business with. They have exacting standards and a fiercely guarded reputation for quality which they will not compromise.
The country is open to foreign investors - the government accords the same incentives and privileges to foreign businesses as they do to domestic ones.