The Alpine Initiative

A Citizens’ Initiative with European Dimensions

In 1987 a citizens’ initiative to protect the Alpine region from the negative consequences of a steadily growing transit traffic was launched. In 1994 the initiative was adopted by the Swiss voters against the will of the political and economic establishment. The Alpine initiative had considerable consequences both for Switzerland and for the whole of Europe.

Above Altdorf, the capital of the canton of Uri, you have a marvellous view over the valley that rises from the Lake of Uri into the snowy mountains of the Swiss Alps. In the middle of the valley an endless stream of big lorries is transporting goods between North and South of Europe. At Göschenen the stream is swallowed by the Gotthard tunnel crossing the Alps towards Italy.

After the opening of the Gotthard road tunnel in 1980 traffic has been increasing year by year, causing growing damage to nature and human beings. Sooner or later the steady increase in traffic and transport would make life in the Alpine region unbearable. Resistance arose and people started to defend their lifes against the threat of suffocating in a noisy and polluted environment. “Iniziativa da las alps”, an association and popular movement was founded and organized a popular initiative for the protection of the Alpine region from a growing transit traffic.

The first discussions took place in 1987, they were still local and without impact on national politics. An initiative committee was formed and on 9 May 1987 the popular initiative was launched. Within a year the requested 100,000 signatures were collected and on 11 May 1990 the “Alpine initiative” submitted to the authorities in Bern.

Public debates for and against the initiative were intense. The sponsors of the initiative spent about 4 million Euros for public relations and referendum campaigns. Organizing a popular initiative normally costs a considerable amount of money, but there are also examples of successful initiatives with little money. The Swiss government and parliament, supported by the road traffic lobby, fought against the Alpine initiative and they were convinced to win. But it turned out otherwise.

On 20 January 1994 the majority of the voters and cantons approved the Alpine initiative. The Federal Constitution was amended as follows (Art. 84 in the new constitution of 2000):

  1. The Confederation shall protect the Alpine region from the negative effects of transit traffic.
  2. Transalpine goods traffic shall be transported from border to border by rail.
  3. The capacity of the transit routes in the Alpine region must not be increased.

The referendum result took government and parliament by surprise and left them perplexed. And so was the European union: the rejection of the ratification of the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement in 1992 by popular referendum and the adoption of the Alpine initiative two years later gave the impression that Switzerland was secluding herself.

The NRLA includes two new base tunnels at the Gotthard and the Lötschberg, which is operational since 2007.

The Swiss government did not dispute the aim of the Alpine initiative. The project “Rail 2000”, the decision to build a New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA or AlpTransit) and the the agreements on transit traffic between the European Community and Switzerland (1992) showed clearly that the Swiss government was committed to transfer goods traffic from road to rail.

But the government knew that the Alpine initiative conflicted with the agreement on transit traffic as well as with the traffic policy of the European union at that time. Government and parliament recommended the voters to reject the Alpine initiative. They feared the difficulties associated with the implementation of the Alpine initiative which would include a renegotiation of the agreement on transit traffic with the European union. They feared the reactions of the European union and possible economic sanctions.

But the majority of the voters did not follow the recommendations of government, parliament and the road traffic lobby, and voted “yes”. Contrary to government the voters withstood the pressures of European policies. “They were right”, said 10 years later Max Friedli, the director of the Federal Office of Transport, who had fought against the Alpine initiative side by side with the government. “Sometimes voters must give politicians a fillip on the nose to make them remember what is reasonable!”

The Alpine Initiative Changed Europe

The North-South transit route over the Gotthard Pass and through the Gotthard tunnel was never a concern of the local people alone, it did involve small and big neighbors over the centuries up until today. For example, the building of the Gotthard road tunnel 1872-1882 was based on a treaty between Italy, Germany and Switzerland in 1871. Also today it remains true that the Swiss traffic policy can achieve its aims only together with the European Union, not against it.

However, Switzerland differs from the European Union in two respects. First, only in Switzerland traffic policy is co-decided by direct democracy. Many important decisions are made by the people and government can implement its policy only with the support of the people at the ballot box. Second, already in a very early stage the aim of the Swiss traffic policy was to develop a comprehensive and nationwide public traffic as well as the transfer of heavy goods traffic from road to rail. The European Union for its part had emphasized the creation of traffic corridors throughout the continent, the Trans-European Networks, in order to strengthen the common market.

© AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd.

This is Direct Democracy

A conflict between Switzerland and the European Union was foreseeable. It became acute after the adoption of the Alpine initiative. Since the protection of the alpine region and a sustainable traffic policy were now rooted in the constitution, the Swiss government had to renegotiate an agreement with the EU on transport of goods and passengers by rail and road. The negotiations took place from 1993 to 1998 and resulted in a package of 7 bilateral treaties. The Swiss parliament voted in favor of the treaties in summer 1999, but two small right wing parties (Lega dei Ticinesi and Swiss Democrats) demanded a referendum. Therefore, the final decision passed to the people who in their majority voted in favor of the bilateral treaties on 21 May 2000.

With passing time, the turn of 1994 in the Swiss traffic policy influenced the whole of Europe. After the initial outrage, the conviction slowly gained ground that it was time to rethink traffic policy. In the White Paper of 2001 the EU adopts the logic of the Swiss traffic policy. Switzerland is presented as a special case, but now not any more negatively, as a country withdrawing on itself, but positively, as a leading example of good policy (White Paper (2001): European transport policy for 2010). In 2009 the Swiss transport minister Moritz Leuenberger received the European Railway Award for outstanding political achievements in the development of economically and environmentally sustainable rail transport (European Railway Award 2009). In his speech he once again emphasized the decisive and creative role of the people (direct democracy) in the whole process. On 15 October 2010 the whole world could watch the final breakthrough of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, a highly emotional moment for all those involved. When it opens in 2017 the Gotthard Base Tunnel will be the longest (57 km) railway tunnel in the world. “The railway is the future of Europe” (Moritz Leuenberger). The people understood this and they were willing to act accordingly, contrary to the politicians which in their majority were depending too much on short term and particular interests instead of the common good.

Gotthard Tunnel Breakthrough 15 October 2010 BBC (more pictures)

Consistent Voters Endorse Sustainable Traffic Policy

In the light of the results of the popular votes on Swiss traffic policy between 1987 and 2011 the voters appear to be rather consistent over time and ecologically rational, and clearly more so than government and parliament, which seem to be less independent and more open to pressures from the European union and strong lobbies. For example, by fighting against the Alpine initiative government and parliament were fighting against their own principles of a sustainable traffic policy.

Popular Votes on Swiss Traffic Policy

Project Rail 2000

New Rail Link Through the Alps

The Alpine Initiative

Introduction of Heavy Vehicles Fee

Financing of Public Traffic Infrastructure (FINöV)

Bilateral Treaties between Switzerland & EU

Counter-Proposal to the Citizens’ Initiative Avanti

 Related Links

Alpen-Initiative (Association)

Alpine Crossing Exchange

Zurich Process – Cooperation of Transport Ministers of Alpine Countries

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last update 06.01.2017