OPINION: Switzerland’s neutrality not immune to impacts of Ukraine invasion

Russia’s cynical and devastating war against Ukraine has put Swiss neutrality under intense scrutiny. Fribourg-based journalist Clare O'Dea investigates how the invasion may change Swiss neutrality forever.

A Swiss military jet takes off from a base in the canton of Vaud, Switzerland. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
A Swiss military jet takes off from a base in the canton of Vaud, Switzerland. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Russia’s cynical and devastating war against Ukraine has put Swiss neutrality under intense scrutiny. Though it has always had an elastic quality, the question now is how far Swiss neutrality should be stretched, given the high stakes of the current conflict. 

The Swiss government itself refers to Swiss neutrality as a flexible instrument. In an official publication on the subject, issued eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine, this was plainly stated. 

“Switzerland has never taken neutrality to be a rigid statute of foreign and security policy … It defines its position on the basis of the specific circumstances of the individual case.”

But this flexibility inevitably leads to clashes of opinion at home, especially because Swiss neutrality is a key aspect of the country’s origins and self-image.

Switzerland is not just neutral, it’s famously neutral. It has also benefited enormously from its special position, as much through war damage averted as from opportunities created. 

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

There is currently a tug-of-war taking place in Swiss politics about the shape of neutrality. At the more hawkish end of the rope, parliamentarians like Hans-Peter Portmann (FDP) and Beat Flach (Green Liberals) are calling for Switzerland to be able to initiate its own sanctions. This opinion has majority backing in the National Council’s (parliament) foreign affairs commission. 

Currently, the country may only adopt UN or EU sanctions, as Switzerland did with EU sanctions against Russia imposed at the end of February. Being proactive on sanctions would be a big change.

The move two months ago was heralded at the time as an historic breach of Swiss neutrality, but given that Switzerland had participated in international sanctions before, the move wasn’t as dramatic as it seemed. As far back as 1920 when Switzerland joined the League of Nations, it was prepared to share in the League’s economic sanctions.

Sanctions on Russia: Is Switzerland still a neutral nation?

Neutrality is clearly in the eye of the beholder. The Swiss People’s Party still aspires to a purist blend of sovereignty and neutrality in which Switzerland would remain aloof from all the (non-financial) dirty business of the world. It opposes, for example, the country’s impending membership of the UN Security Council (2023-24), just as it opposed Switzerland joining the UN in 2002.

At some point, voters will have their say on the definition of neutrality – either through the popular initiative announced by former People’s Party strongman Christoph Blocher, or sooner if the parliament’s template for neutrality is put to a popular vote. 

Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis has promised a report on Swiss neutrality “by the summer”. That document will provide more fuel for the debate. 

READ MORE: Switzerland mulls ‘neutrality referendum’ amid Ukraine backlash

This report is likely to reiterate the core principles of Swiss – armed and active – neutrality. The first unchangeable principle is the obligation under international law for a neutral state not to participate in any international armed conflicts.

As an extension of this, Switzerland may not enter into any obligations “that would result in a violation of its neutrality in the event of war”. That means joining a military alliance like NATO is obviously out of the question. 

But it doesn’t mean that Switzerland can’t have a working relationship with NATO. Along with other neutral European countries, Switzerland has been a Nato partner since 1996, in the framework of the Partnership for Peace

Switzerland actively cooperates with the alliance in the promotion of human security, defence institution building and in multinational peace-support operations, such as in Kosovo. 

When it comes to regional security, Switzerland is far from being a passive player. Despite not being a member, it participates in the European Union’s civilian and military peace promotion missions in the framework of the EU’s common security and defence policy.

The Alpine country has also been a member state of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) since 1975. It uses the organisation as a forum to discuss security policy issues and supports OSCE missions such as election observing.  

Things are more tricky for the Swiss regarding the sale of arms. Legally, a neutral state may not militarily favour warring parties, whether with troops, armaments, or by making its own territory available. 

Being a significant weapons exporter has always sat uneasily with its self-professed neutrality but Switzerland has taken pains only to sell to states not involved in conflict. 

That doesn’t mean Swiss weapons and ammunition never end up being used in conflicts, Over the past 20 years, Ukraine and Russia have bought almost CHF6 million worth of Swiss weapons, which are currently being used by both sides against each other. 

READ MORE: How Swiss weapons are being used on both sides of the Ukraine-Russia conflict

Despite that reality, Switzerland just prevented Germany from making good on its promise to deliver Gepard anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine. The Germans wanted to send Swiss-made ammunition with the tanks but the Swiss said no to their re-export request.

Giving Switzerland more flexibility to allow exports to a country like Ukraine, under attack, is another proposal with some support in parliament. 

There seems little doubt that some degree of change to Switzerland’s neutrality policy is coming, partly because of the intense focus on the issue, but mainly because the world has changed since Russia’s latest aggression in Europe. And when the world changes, Swiss neutrality adapts.

Switzerland is free to apply different degrees of friendliness and flexibility to its neutrality, depending on its own goals and the other countries involved. The challenge will be to do this without jeopardising its long-standing diplomatic role in good offices. 

Despite some nostalgic rhetoric, the Swiss are under no illusion that they can guarantee their defence alone. Ultimately the country’s security is tied to the security of its like-minded partners in the region, with or without neutrality. 

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OPINION: If foreigners think the Swiss are unfriendly who’s to blame?

There is a perception in Switzerland that Swiss natives and foreigners just don't really get on. Clare O'Dea looks at why there might be a lack of chemistry and where the blame may lie.

OPINION: If foreigners think the Swiss are unfriendly who's to blame?

I was once on a bus in Geneva, suffering from morning sickness on that particular day, on my way out to Cern for an interview. A man sitting across from me started to talk. Under the guise of striking up a friendly conversation, he kept asking me questions about myself. ‘Where do you live? Where are you going? Are you a student?’

It doesn’t happen to me anymore but young women will recognise this scenario. I felt cornered and it got the point where I had to tell him to stop quizzing me. ‘Typical Swiss,’ he snapped back at me. ‘Cold and unfriendly.’

It’s an easy accusation to throw around, based as it is on a well-known cliché. At the time I was not Swiss. I had only lived here for a few years having moved from Ireland, a nation famed for its friendliness. 

The extra irony is, I do chat to strangers on public transport, when it happens naturally and without an agenda. I’ve had interesting conversations in this way over the years. I became a Swiss citizen in 2015. Am I a friendly Swiss person or a friendly Irish person now? It shouldn’t matter. 

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But the reputation of the Swiss for coldness seems to have staying power. At the very least, the perception seems to be that there is a lack of chemistry between Swiss and foreigners in this country. So is that a fair and accurate assessment? 

When it comes to the romantic side of things. Swiss people marry foreigners in large numbers. In a given year, a quarter of Swiss brides and grooms choose foreign spouses. Presumably some chemistry is involved in those marriages.

My impression is that the main source for the idea of the Swiss being unfriendly is anecdotal. In my early years as an immigrant, I noticed that fellow foreigners enjoyed sharing anecdotes of encounters with unfriendly Swiss people. Integration can be a lonely and frustrating process beset with misunderstandings. But are these stories being emphasised because they confirm a stereotype or because Swiss unfriendliness is a widespread phenomenon? 

Hard facts are hard to come by in this subjective area. Some “expat” surveys back up the idea that it’s difficult to befriend the Swiss. But if someone defines themselves as an expat, does that not mean they are living somewhat apart from the local population?  

OPINION: Switzerland’s neutrality not immune to impacts of Ukraine invasion

There’s another stereotype, expat. A high-income foreigner living in Switzerland on a temporary basis, whose work life is English-speaking and multinational. The natives are just extras in the movie of their lives, a movie that will continue elsewhere. Is this the best group to be interpreting what the Swiss are truly like? Is this description fair and accurate? 

Of course there are many different types of foreigners and not enough surveys to cover them all. There are the people with Swiss partners, who have the advantage of tapping into their partner’s ready-made network, which usually means more fast-tracked integration.

There are foreigners born in Switzerland – one in four of the population – who grew up with the Swiss and probably have friends for life who are Swiss. How should their friendliness or lack of it be counted? 

Generally speaking, language fluency and time spent in Switzerland are probably the key determinants of whether the relationship between outsiders and the Swiss is successful. Not to forget personality! 

It also helps to put aside any pre-conceived notions about the Swiss when you come to live here. That’s easier said than done. The Swiss are the rich kid of Europe, somewhat aloof in their international relations, while domestic politics has its xenophobic moments. 

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But to view individual people you meet as embodying these characteristics can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a very diverse country, in terms of language, class, politics, regional differences, and immigration background. 

Perhaps I should mention that I have found the Swiss warm, welcoming and kind. Not everyone, not everywhere, not always, but enough people to maintain my faith in Swiss humanity. Compared to the society I come from, they don’t feel social pressure to perform superficial friendliness. And that’s ok because different countries have different norms.    

The British-Swiss writer Diccon Bewes refers to the Swiss as being like coconuts, in that it’s hard to break through their outer shell, but once you do, you have a friend for life. 

Some things are universal. Two ingredients that have made it easier for me to establish friendships are regular contact and common ground. Times where people are thrown together and where nationality doesn’t matter.

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Maybe the issue is that many foreigners first encounter the Swiss through work or officialdom. But Swiss people are like Clark Kent, living double lives. They don’t reveal their true selves at work. Their true selves are in their passions. 

Hobbies are where it’s at. If you find the Swiss at play or following their passions, you will be able to connect with them because you will be like-minded to some extent.

Whether it’s sports, music or some commitment to the community, the Swiss love joining clubs and associations and organising stuff. Unlike work aperos, people don’t rush home after these gatherings. All you have to do is grab your little glass of white wine and join in.