Lawrence Zünd, IFF Institute of Federalism, University of Fribourg
In Switzerland, the municipality is the closest political and administrative unit of the federal system. While it is the municipality that ensures the proper functioning of the direct democracy, the municipalities are not protected by the federal law. It is in fact each and every canton that develops its own specific legal framework regarding its municipalities.
The Canton of Neuchâtel had not experienced any mergers of municipalities during the 20th century since the Municipality of La Coudre joined the City of Neuchâtel on January 1, 1930. However, from 2000 to 2019 the canton has seen the number of its municipalities fall by 50 per cent since, from 62 to 31. Two important mergers occurred in the mountainous valleys of the canton, namely the creation on 1 January, 2009, of the Val-de-Travers and Val-de-Ruz. Both had an undeniable ripple effect by sparking other projects, as they brought together a very large number of municipalities merged in a single operation.
The study of this practice focuses on a merger between mainly rural and mountainous municipalities and, by comparing it to the merger of urban/peri-urban municipalities in an additional practice, it will highlight the differences in needs and objectives aimed at depending on their rural/mountainous/urban condition. The study of this practice is relevant for the LoGov researchers as it will allow them to identify and discuss:
- some factors of success of the merger after an unsuccessful attempt;
- the negotiation processes between municipalities with different needs and objectives (rural/urban);
- the extent to which the phenomenon increases or decreases the centralization of power;
- the non-centralization of services after a merger in order to avoid creating a center-periphery/rural-urban disparity.
The Canton of Neuchâtel, in its new Constitution of September 24, 2000, guarantees the existence of municipalities by providing that no merger of municipalities can take place without the consent of all the concerned municipalities and encourages the merger of municipalities. On December 3, 2001, the Grand Council adopted the law on the municipal aid fund (LFAC) in order to encourage inter-municipal collaboration and mergers of municipalities by means of incentive measures. On March 29, 2006, the Grand Council adopted a decree authorizing the Council of State to use the remainder of the fund intended for municipal structural reforms, amounting to 20 million francs, to grant aid for mergers or other forms of collaboration between the municipalities.
This situation, a canton supporting municipalities to merge combined to an important inflow of capital now available to support eventual mergers, has led many municipalities to consider the reform of their structures and merge. After a first unsuccessful trial that aimed at merging eleven municipalities, nine municipalities of the Val-de-Travers (namely the municipalities of Môtiers, Couvet, Travers, Noiraigue, Boveresse, Fleurier, Buttes, Saint-Sulpice and Les Bayards) adopted on September 13, 2007, their merger agreement. The General Councils of every municipality then endorsed this agreement on December 10, 2007, and followed by the population of the nine municipalities, which accepted the merger by referendum on February 24, 2008.
The Municipality of Val-de-Travers has acquired an important dimension in the Canton of Neuchâtel that the former municipalities did not have. According to the Council of State, the structural gains from the merger have made it possible to reduce the overall level of local taxation and to develop new services (reception structures, youth center, learning center, networking of parents and commuters active in the municipality). Supporter of the merger, the Council of State considers that it improved equity in an increasingly interconnected territory and enabled the creation of a common living space through the adoption of harmonized rules and taxes, the abolition of inter-municipal structures, the control gained back by the new municipality over tasks formerly entrusted to external or inter-municipal structures and finally the professionalization of structures making it possible to better cope with the growing complexity of municipal affairs. For the supporters of the merger, merging municipalities, when it is done following a real social project and not only mechanically, makes it possible to support the canton’s prosperity. A last observation is that this successful merger has favored merger projects in many other areas of the canton, around the City of Neuchâtel, in the Entre-deux -Lacs, in La Béroche, in Rochefort / BrotDessous, in the Mountains and on the West Coast.
Constitution of the Canton of Neuchâtel of 24 September 2000, RSN 101 <http://rsn.ne.ch/DATA/program/books/rsne/htm/101.htm>
Law on the Municipal Aid Fund (LFAC) of 3 December 2001, RSN 17241 <http://rsn.ne.ch/DATA/program/books/rsne/htm/17241.htm>
Application regulations for the Law on the Assistance Fund for Municipalities (RALFAC NE), RSN 172410 <http://rsn.ne.ch/DATA/program/books/rsne/htm/172410.htm>
Council of State of the Canton of Neuchâtel, ‘Rapport du Conseil d’Etat au Grand Conseil à l’appui d’un projet de loi portant modification de la loi sur les droits politiques (LDP) [Report of the Council of State to the Grand Council in support of a bill amending the Law on Political Rights (LDP)]’ (Report to the Grand Council, 31 August 2015) <https://www.ne.ch/autorites/GC/objets/Documents/Rapports/2015/15041_CE.pdf>.
Council of State of the Canton of Neuchâtel, ‘Rapport du Conseil d’Etat au Grand Conseil à l’appui d’un projet de décret soumettant au vote du peuple l’initiative législative populaire cantonale “L’or de la BNS pour l’avenir et l’innovation” [Report of the Council of State to the Grand Council in support of a draft decree submitting to the vote of the people the cantonal legislative initiative “L’or de la BNS pour l’avenir et l’innovation”]’ (Report to the Grand Council, 4 July 2007) <https://www.ne.ch/autorites/GC/objets/Documents/Rapports/2007/07024_CE.pdf>
Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:
—— ‘La commune pionnière de Val-de-Travers (NE) fête ses dix ans’ (swissinfo.ch, 2 August 2019) <https://www.swissinfo.ch/fre/la-commune-pionnière-de-val-de-travers–ne–fête-ses-dix-ans/45136454>
Steiner R and Kaiser C, Gemeindefusionen aus kantonaler Sicht (KPM Bern 2010) <https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Reto_Steiner/publication/303541769_Gemeindefusionen_aus_kantonaler_Sicht/links/57473a8608ae2301b0b8017a.pdf>
Kettiger D, ‘Gemeindefusionen – ein Thema mit vielen Facetten’ (PuMAConsult GmbH 2004) <https://www.kettiger.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/Dokumente/Downloads/Kettiger_Aufsatz-Gemeindefusion.pdf>
 ‘La commune pionnière de Val-de-Travers (NE) fête ses dix ans’ (swissinfo.ch, 2 August 2019) <https://www.swissinfo.ch/fre/la-commune-pionnière-de-val-de-travers–ne–fête-ses-dix-ans/45136454>.
 Art 91(1) The existence of the municipalities and their territory are guaranteed.
(2) The state encourages mergers of municipalities.
(3) However, no merger or division of municipalities, nor any cession of territory from one municipality to another, can take place without the consent of the affected municipalities.
Translated by author, Constitution of Neuchâtel available in French, <http://rsn.ne.ch/DATA/program/books/rsne/htm/101.htm>.
 Council of State of the Canton of Neuchâtel, ‘Rapport du Conseil d’Etat au Grand Conseil à l’appui d’un projet de décret soumettant au vote du peuple l’initiative législative populaire cantonale “L’or de la BNS pour l’avenir et l’innovation”’ (Report to the Grand Council, 4 July 2007) <https://www.ne.ch/autorites/GC/objets/Documents/Rapports/2007/07024_CE.pdf>.
 Council of State of the Canton of Neuchâtel, ‘Rapport du Conseil d’Etat au Grand Conseil à l’appui d’un projet de loi portant modification de la loi sur les droits politiques (LDP)’ (Report to the Grand Council, 31 August 2015) <https://www.ne.ch/autorites/GC/objets/Documents/Rapports/2015/15041_CE.pdf>.