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How neutral is Switzerland, really?

The war in Ukraine is forcing Switzerland to explain its neutrality. What has long been seen as a formula for peace and prosperity is increasingly viewed from abroad as opportunistic and outdated.

This content was published on June 10, 2022 - 11:47
Philip Schaufelberger (illustration)

The war in Ukraine has reignited a debate about Swiss neutrality. A domestic debate about the definition and scope of neutrality has erupted, with two opposing camps. One is conservative, mainly represented by the rightwing Swiss People's Party, and wants to keep to a strict interpretation of neutrality. It is planning a people’s initiative that would incorporate comprehensive neutrality into the Swiss constitution.

The opposing, more liberal camp, which represents a majority of the government, is pushing for active neutrality.

At the end of May, during the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos President Ignazio Cassis coined a new concept: "cooperative neutrality". This was his response to those who, asked how anyone could remain neutral in the face the Russian attack on Ukraine. Officials have announced they would publish a government report which, among other things, is intended to outline "how our understanding of neutrality could develop further".

Switzerland: not ‘neutral in the classic sense’ for a long time

The debate is not new. For some time now, Switzerland – like most neutral states – has been moving away from a traditional concept of neutrality and towards the community of states: since it joined the United Nations in 2002, it has had to comply with UN sanctions.

Switzerland works on the basis that the law of neutrality does not apply to UN military missions because ultimately, the Security Council aimsExternal link to maintain “international peace and security”.

However, not everyone agrees. “Neutrality in the classical sense is not really compatible with UN membership and even less so with EU membership”, says Peter Hilpold, an Austrian international law expert at the University of Innsbruck.

"Switzerland has at times clearly not been neutral," argues Stefanie Walter, a professor of international relations and political economy at the University of Zurich. "In the Cold War, for example, Switzerland was implicitly clearly on the side of the West. And it also has a position on human rights."

In the Ukraine war, Switzerland immediately condemned the Russian attack on Ukraine as a violation of international law.

What does neutrality mean anyway?

This raises the question of what, exactly, neutrality means. When the allies granted Switzerland perpetual neutrality at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the deal was that Switzerland would not take part in conflicts and would not provide mercenaries; in return, no more wars would be fought on its territory.

This principle has changed little over time; even today, the law of neutrality primarily obliges states not to participate in wars, either directly or indirectly. Neutral states must treat parties at war equally, i.e., they may not allow overflights or supply weapons to one side - even via third parties - and neglect to help the other side.

In recent months, Switzerland has banned NATO members from overflying because they were supplying Ukraine with weapons. And it refused to grant Germany and Denmark permission to give Ukraine tanks and ammunition bought from Switzerland. Pressure on Switzerland to back down from this strict stance is increasing abroad.

Neutrality is not only a legal concept, but also affects Switzerland's image. Neutrality is an intrinsic part of Switzerland’s identity, and it should not be jeopardized lightly. So while pursuing a voluntary and flexible “neutrality policy,” Switzerland is also trying to convince other countries that it would stand aside in the event of war.

NATO membership is ruled out

In times of peace, Switzerland, as a neutral state, is not allowed to join a military alliance such as NATO, because it requires members to commit to mutual assistance.

Traditionally neutral states such as Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO after the start of the Ukraine war – in legal terms, that equates to renouncing to their neutrality.

For Switzerland, on the other hand, joining NATO is out of the question, despite the new era heralded by the Ukraine war. Switzerland is less exposed geographically than the two Scandinavian countries.

However, Switzerland and NATO do want to cooperate more closely in future, as agreed by the Swiss Defence Minister and the NATO Secretary General at a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Even the Swiss population accepts this, according to a survey, despite its overwhelming support for neutrality and resistance to NATO membership.

Closer cooperation is not in itself revolutionary, because Switzerland has been seeking closer military collaboration with its neighbouring countries and NATO for years, especially in the areas of training and cyber security. If Switzerland is attacked, it is of course allowed to defend itself in alliance with others; neutrality does not stand in the way of this.

Switzerland follows a pragmatic approach. Because it is in the middle of Europe, it is unlikely that a military attack will be directed against Switzerland alone. It is much more likely that several European countries will be attacked at the same time and defend themselves together. If Switzerland participates in military exercises in peacetime and equips itself with compatible weapons systems, it will be in a position to fight alongside its Western friends in an emergency instead of having to defend itself alone. This is one of the reasons it has chosen US manufacturer Lockheed-Martin to manufacture its new F-35 fighter jet.

This approach is often seen as freeloading from abroad. Although Switzerland wants to increase defence spending dramatically, it is still far from NATO’s target, which requires members to invest 2% of GDP in defence. Critics say Switzerland benefits from NATO's protective umbrella without bearing the burden of a member state.

Switzerland benefits from neutrality

In general, neutrality is of great benefit to Switzerland. It may sound paradoxical, but neutrality boosts arms sales. Some countries do not want to position themselves by buying weapons from the great powers such as the US or Russia, so prefer to turn to trusted neutral countries.

Switzerland also benefits from neutrality as a host location and mediator, because those who choose not to take a stance are more credible as bridge-builders.

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In the case of the war in Ukraine, Switzerland’s efforts to play a mediating role have not so far been successful. Discussions are currently taking place, however, on whether Switzerland could assume a protecting power mandate for Ukraine and represent Kyiv's interests in Moscow.

Switzerland now wants to use the Ukraine Reform Conference planned for July in Lugano to secure a leading role in the reconstruction of Ukraine. It is competing for this against the EU, which has claimed this leadership role for itself.

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