Switzerland mulls ‘neutrality referendum’ amid Ukraine backlash

Neutrality is synonymous with Switzerland, but what does it actually mean?

Swiss President Ignazio Cassis removes his mask. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Swiss President Ignazio Cassis removes his mask. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Recent war-related moves such as imposition of sanctions on Russia, along with suggestions from some MPs to allow arms deliveries to Ukraine, raise up questions about  Switzerland’s long-standing tradition of neutrality.

These events have prompted some Swiss MPs from all sides of the political spectrum to suggest a referendum, so the question of neutrality can be decided by the voters.

One deputy, Hans-Peter Portmann, told SonntagsZeitung that “while neutrality is anchored in the Constitution, the laws lack provisions on how Switzerland should behave as a neutral country”.

READ MORE: Sanctions on Russia: Is Switzerland still a neutral nation?

By holding a referendum on the matter, the population could have their say on what exactly it means to be neutral. 

Criticism has grown since Switzerland’s decision to place sanctions on Russia, particularly from the centre-right and far-right of the political spectrum. 

MP Roger Köppel, from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), said at the time that the Swiss government had “buckled”, arguing that it “did not have the strength to uphold (the principle of) neutrality”.

When the announcement was made, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis acknowledged that while the step was “unique” Switzerland was not abandoning its “untouchable” commitment to neutrality, countering that “playing into the hands of an aggressor is not neutral.”

“This is a one-time step by Switzerland, which we should not take lightly from the point of view of neutrality.”

As reported by The Local in March, while Switzerland has historically retained a strong commitment to military neutrality, for instance by opting out of military arrangements such as NATO, there has been a consistent willingness to form political alliances, such as becoming a part of the United Nations. 

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Swiss finance minister makes surprise decision to quit

Swiss Finance Minister Ueli Maurer, 71, announced he would resign at the end of the year in a surprise move on Friday after more than four decades in politics.

Swiss finance minister makes surprise decision to quit

He is the longest serving member of the Federal Council — Switzerland’s seven-member government — having been a member since January 2009. He has held the finance brief since January 2016 after seven years as the defence minister.

“I have been in politics for more than 40 years, 14 of them in the Federal Council. It is a fascinating task,” Maurer told a hastily arranged press conference.

However, “during the last year, I thought that I still have a lot of energy to do something else”, he said, announcing his resignation.

“I already have plans,” the Zurich father-of-six said, without revealing his intentions, adding that he was leaving “with one eye smiling and one eye crying”.

Maurer served twice as Switzerland’s president — which rotates annually among Federal Council members — in 2013 and 2019.

He chaired the Swiss People’s Party from 1996 to 2008. The right-wing, populist SVP has been Switzerland’s biggest party since 2003.

“Without Ueli Maurer, the SVP would never have become the country’s leading political force,” Le Temps newspaper said.

The Tages-Anzeiger daily said he was “one of the most versatile Swiss politicians of recent decades, unpredictable and agile”.

The election of his successor on the Federal Council is expected to take place on December 7. Ministers are elected by parliament.

The major parties share out the seven seats according to a so-called “magic formula” which has evolved over time.

The SVP, the centre-left Socialist Party and the centre-right Liberals have two ministers each, with the centre-right Centre party allocated one.

The left-wing Green Party hopes to secure a first-ever seat with a strong performance in the 2023 parliamentary elections.