Legal basis for cross-border cooperation

The flags of all of the Swiss cantons flying in front of the Federal Palace.
Cross-border agreements often also affect the cantons, so close cooperation between the federal and cantonal authorities is important. © Parliamentary Services

Cross-border cooperation is governed by international, national and cantonal law. In Europe, the Madrid Convention constitutes the legal framework for cross-border cooperation activities. Negotiations are conducted by the Federal Council, which acts at the request and on behalf of the cantons concerned, but also takes account of the interests of the Confederation and of other cantons.

The Madrid Convention facilitates agreements between regions and local authorities on opposite sides of a national border. It provides a legal framework for cooperation at a sub-national level, particularly in the areas of regional, urban and rural development, environmental protection, infrastructure improvements and disaster relief. The parties undertake to overcome any difficulties that might impede cross-border cooperation.

The Karlsruhe Agreement applies the provisions of the Madrid Convention to relations between Switzerland, Germany, France and Luxembourg. 

Madrid Convention: founding instrument of the legal framework for cross-border cooperation in Europe

The European Framework Convention on Transfrontier Cooperation between Territorial Communities or Authorities (Madrid Convention) of 21 May 1980 was drawn up at the initiative of the Council of Europe. Like its neighbouring states, Switzerland is a signatory. It has also ratified the three protocols to this Convention.

  • Additional Protocol of 9 November 1995: aims to strengthen cross-border cooperation between European countries by expressly recognising the right of territorial authorities to conclude agreements on cross-border cooperation in certain circumstances.
  • Second Protocol of 5 May 1998: facilitates cooperation between the authorities of territories that are not directly contiguous.
  • Third Protocol of 16 November 2009: establishes rules for the creation of Euroregional Co-operation Groupings (ECGs) endowed with legal personality.

Karlsruhe Agreement: encourages the creation of cross-border bodies

In 1996, the Federal Council signed with the governments of Germany, France and Luxembourg the Karlsruhe Agreement on Transboundary Cooperation between local communities and local bodies. To date, the cantons of Solothurn, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Aargau, Jura, Schaffhausen, Bern, Neuchâtel, Vaud, Geneva and Valais are parties to the agreement signed on their behalf. It contains provisions on the conclusion of cross-border cooperation agreements and on the creation of bodies known as local groupings.

EU Regulation on European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC)

Under the Regulation of the European Parliament and European Council on a European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC), EGTCs may be established on EU territory. Such groupings serve to facilitate and promote cross-border, transnational and/or interregional cooperation between their members. An EGTC has legal personality. Its members may include member states, regional or local authorities and other public bodies. An EGTC may also be formed by the regional authorities of a single EU member state and one or more third countries bordering that member state. This is of particular interest to Swiss cantons, as it opens up possibilities to cooperate bilaterally with neighbour states.

Federal Constitution: a close collaboration between the federal government and the cantons

According to the Federal Constitution, concluding international agreements is the prerogative of the Confederation, but the cantons may conclude treaties with foreign states on matters that lie within the scope of their powers. Swiss law requires the Confederation and the cantons to collaborate closely on cross-border matters. The cantons may deal directly with lower-level (local or regional) authorities e.g. to deal with specific problems shared by neighbouring regions.

However, the cantons may not deal directly with central government authorities of foreign states.  The Federal Constitution provides that official contacts take place via the Federal Council.  It is therefore up to the Federal Council to conduct negotiations and to sign and ratify the agreement. Although the Federal Council acts at the request and on behalf of the cantons concerned, it also takes account of the interests of the Confederation and of other cantons.

The Federal Council usually concludes agreements on behalf of the canton. The canton is the contracting party, so the agreement must be approved in accordance with cantonal procedures. If it is in the direct interests of the Confederation, however, the Federal Council can also conclude agreements on it own behalf.