Lawrence Zünd, Flavien Felder and Bernhard Altermatt, IFF Institute of Federalism, University of Fribourg
Regardless of their size, municipalities face challenges that go beyond their municipal borders, for instance in the fields of mobility, economic development or water management. This is why municipalities in Switzerland have woven a complex network of inter-municipal collaborations (associations of municipalities, inter-municipal agreements or the Agglomeration of Fribourg described above). One reason that led to the creation of the politically constituted Agglomeration of Fribourg was that it would – at least temporarily – serve as a body of cooperation until the merger of the participating communes in a new municipality ‘Grand Fribourg’ became reality.
The Agglomeration of Fribourg has enabled progress in the areas of mobility, land development and management, culture, tourism and the economy. Its capacity for action was however considered by many as limited by the institutional design which effectively inserted a fully constituted fourth layer into the classic decentralized Swiss state structure of three tiers (federal state, cantons, communes), while other communal competences remained within the autonomous governance of each single commune. Proponents of a full merger argue that uniting the municipalities would remove the disadvantages of this double-limitation, strengthen governance, accelerate the capacity of public authorities to act, avoid the often long and tedious decision-making processes, increase transparency and ensure a faster implementation of political decisions.
Due to the fact that the municipalities are the smallest administrative and political units in Switzerland, the municipality final decision on merging or not with neighboring communes is generally in the hands of the municipalities respectively its population or voting citizens. Local populations remain in most cases very attached to their municipal identity. Hence, every merger needs to be well negotiated and justified in order for it not to be rejected by the local population in the final vote (happening most often either by way of a citizens’ assembly or a vote at the poll).
The study of this practice focuses on a merger between urban and peri-urban municipalities. It is complementary to the merger between rural municipalities which are also incentivized in Switzerland, highlighting the differences in needs and objectives depending on the rural/urban condition. This study is relevant for the LoGov researchers as it will allow them to identify and discuss:
- some factors of success / failure of municipal mergers;
- the negotiation processes between reluctant 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 center-periphery/rural-urban disparities.
The merger project in the ‘Grand Fribourg’ area aims to unite the municipalities of Avry, Belfaux, Corminboeuf, Fribourg, Givisiez, Granges-Paccot, Marly, Matran and Villars-sur-Glâne. With more than 75,000 inhabitants, the merged City of Fribourg would become the ninth most populated municipality in Switzerland, behind Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Lausanne, Bern, Winterthur, Lucerne and St-Gallen. This would allow the Municipality of Fribourg to be one of the ten Swiss municipalities regularly consulted by the Federal Council and the Federal Administration. In addition, Fribourg would be the biggest bilingual municipality in Switzerland in terms of population.
According to the proponents of the merger, the concept of merger contains strong measures in favor of mobility, employment and protection of minorities. By improving infrastructure and public transportation, an important aim of the merger is to increase the connectivity between rural/urban areas and improve their integration into a well-functioning peri-urban space. For instance, one affirmed objective is to ensure that any user is connected to any point of the urban network in less than fifteen minutes by 2026, with a bus every 7.5 minutes anywhere on the territory of the merged municipality. Coordinated land-use and town-planning should enable more sensible densification, increase biodiversity and bring urban and rural areas closer together.
Originally, nine municipalities expressed their willingness to participate in the process. In January 2017, the municipal councils of Corminboeuf, Givisiez, Friborg and Marly asked the Council of State (executive) of the canton to initiate the merger process. The cantonal government consulted with the other municipalities in the perimeter of the Agglomeration of Fribourg (s. above) and included those that expressed their interest in joining the project (Avry, Belfaux, Granges-Paccot, Matran, Villars-sur-Glâne). The municipalities of Pierrafortscha, Grolley, Neyruz and La Sonnaz, which also had expressed their interest but which were not members of the Agglomeration of Fribourg, obtained an observer status in the Constitutive Assembly of Grand Fribourg.
At this stage, the precise modalities of the merger were not decided, but only the general goal of a future merger. Once the principle had been accepted by all municipalities (by way of a decision by the communal executive or legislative body), a directly elected constitutive assembly drew up a merger agreement including basic decisions on services, infrastructures, political and administrative organization, taxes etc. The merger project, validated in January 2020, described in detail the services, organization and the financial framework proposed for the new municipality resulting of the merger. Due to the complexity of the merger in ‘Grand Fribourg’, a consultative vote was planned for September 2021. It was believed to serve as the basis for deciding which communes would withdraw of the process and which would continue to work on the merger project. The proponents of the merger process consider that is not be considered as imposed from the top for several reasons: First, the initial kick-off to the process came from the communes themselves; second, the smaller municipalities were well represented in the constitutive assembly (26 of the 36 delegates came from periphery/rural municipalities, the rest from the center-town); and third, every commune can withdraw after the consultative vote.
Surprisingly, the results of the consultative vote that took place on 26 September 2021 were very clear with only three out of nine municipalities voting in favor of the merger project. It is not clear what will happen to the ‘Grand Fribourg’ merger project. Only time will tell. Among the various options, a merger of three communes is still possible, although unlikely. A strengthening of the existing agglomeration (which has meanwhile become a simple association of municipalities) is more likely but will have to expand geographically and include additional rural municipalities. In any case, the road to the merger of the peri-urban municipalities with the urban municipalities is still long and full of pitfalls.
The planned merger of Fribourg with its neighboring communes (which also cooperate with the center-city in the Agglomeration of Fribourg) has met with certain resistances. After the election of a constitutive merging-assembly in 2016, the nine participating municipalities have drafted a preliminary convention which was rejected by the majority of the municipalities in September 2021. As it appears, the processes of direct-democratic decision-making are playing a specific role in this example of Swiss reform of local governance.
The case of the merger in ‘Grand Fribourg’ shows:
- the difficulty of balancing the interests of very different communes (urban and peri-urban) in a common process;
- the challenge of instituting a constructive dialogue on procedural and material aspects of the merger (how do we decide? and what do we decide? e.g. what tax-rate do we envision?);
- the particular situation of a clearly dominating center-town in relation to its surrounding communes which also vary in size, financial capacity and structural composition;
- the limited influence of regional and cantonal authorities on the process of negotiating a merger on the communal level (financial incentives can only help up to a certain point where questions of local identity and material interests take precedence again);
- the particular importance of democratic decision-making which can bring legitimacy to a merging process, but can also become a factor slowing it down or stopping it altogether.
Law on the Fusion of Communes of 7 December 2004, Canton of Vaud 175.61 <https://prestations.vd.ch/pub/blv-publication/actes/consolide/175.61?key=1595944132530&id=65ba423d-0032-4454-9440-8f9961118399>
Law on the Encouragement of Fusions of Communes (LEFC) of 9 December 2010, RSF 141.1.1 <https://bdlf.fr.ch/app/fr/texts_of_law/141.1.1>
Federal Act on the Consultation Procedure of 18 March 2015, 172.061 <https://www.admin.ch/opc/en/classified-compilation/20032737/index.html>
Law on the Fusion of Communes of 23 September 2016, Canton of Geneva B612 <https://www.ge.ch/legislation/rsg/f/s/rsg_B6_12.html>
Council of State of the Canton of Fribourg, ‘Rapport 2017-DIAF-9 du Conseil d’Etat au Grand Conseil sur la demande de contribution financière complémentaire formulée par l’assemblée constitutive en vue de la fusion du Grand Fribourg’ (2019) <https://www.fr.ch/sites/default/files/2020-01/fr_de_RGC_2017-DIAF-9.pdf>
Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:
—— ‘Fusion des communes du Grand Fribourg’ (Ville de Fribourg, undated) <https://www.ville-fribourg.ch/fusion-communes>
—— ‘L’heure des hausses d’impôts a sonné’ (La Liberté, 15 February 2013) <https://www.laliberte.ch/news/regions/l-heure-des-hausses-d-impots-a-sonne-28145>
—— ‘Fusions des communes’ (Etat de Fribourg, last updated 9 June 2020) <https://www.fr.ch/diaf/scom/sommaire/fusions-de-communes>
Canton de Neuchâtel, ‘Fusions des communes’ (ne.ch, undated) <https://www.ne.ch/autorites/DFS/SCOM/Pages/Fusion_reforme_structures_des_communes.aspx>
Office of Municipal Affairs of the Canton of Bern, ‘Guide sur les fusions de communes’ (Canton of Bern, undated) <https://www.jgk.be.ch/jgk/fr/index/gemeinden/gemeinden/gemeindereformen/fusion/ratgeber_fuer_gemeindefusionen.html>
Service des communes et du logement (SCL), ‘Guide pour les fusions des communes du Canton de Vaud’ (SCL 2005) ‘<https://www.vd.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/themes/territoire/communes/fusions/fusion_guide/Guide_entier_fusions_version_juillet_2019.pdf>
Website of Grand Fribourg, <https://grandfribourg.ch/>
Website of Fusion 21, <http://www.fusion21.ch/>
 Art 2(1). The consultation procedure has the aim of allowing the cantons, political parties and interested groups to participate in the shaping of opinion and the decision-making process of the Confederation.
Art 2(2). It is intended to provide information on material accuracy, feasibility of implementation and public acceptance of a federal project. (Federal Act on the Consultation Procedure, unofficial translation available on <https://www.admin.ch/opc/en/classified-compilation/20032737/index.html>).
 For further details on the proposed investment measures, the allocation of the 320 million francs, as well as examples of financial assistances in other cantons, please see the report of the Council of State of the Canton of Fribourg: <https://www.fr.ch/sites/default/files/2020-01/fr_de_RGC_2017-DIAF-9.pdf>.
 The Federal Constitution does not address the process of merging between municipalities. The process of fusion is defined by the constitution of the cantons. The cantonal constitution of every canton contains its own version of this law, aiming, on the one hand, at encouraging the fusion of municipalities, and on the other hand, at regulating step by step the process of fusion. Even if all cantons have their own specific procedure that might slightly vary, all follow a similar trend which is: a) the proposition of a merger; b) the approval of the merger principle; c) the elaboration of the merger agreement; d) the approval of the merger agreement (vote and ratification). For further details, see the laws on the fusion of municipalities in the constitutions of different cantons.
Canton of Geneva: <https://www.ge.ch/legislation/rsg/f/s/rsg_B6_12.html>
Canton of Fribourg: <https://bdlf.fr.ch/app/fr/texts_of_law/141.1.1>
Canton of Vaud:
Canton of Neuchâtel:
Canton of Bern:
 ‘Accueil’ (fusion-non, undated) <http://www.fusion-non.ch> ; ‘L’heure des hausses d’impôts a sonné’ (La Liberté, 15 February 2013) <https://www.laliberte.ch/news/regions/l-heure-des-hausses-d-impots-a-sonne-28145>; ‘Fusions de communes’ (fusionite.ch, undated) <https://www.fusionite.ch>.