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Politics For Members

Why is Switzerland trying to get closer to NATO?

Helena Bachmann in Geneva
Helena Bachmann in Geneva - [email protected] • 23 Mar, 2023 Updated Thu 23 Mar 2023 11:41 CEST
Why is Switzerland trying to get closer to NATO?
The Swiss flag. Why is Switzerland seeking closer ties with NATO? Photo by Ronnie Schmutz on Unsplash

The Swiss Defence Minister met with the NATO Secretary General on Wednesday to “strengthen cooperation” between Switzerland and the military alliance. What does this mean for Switzerland's neutrality?

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Swiss Defence Minister Viola Amherd travelled to Brussels to discuss with NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg the "strengthening" of the relationship between Switzerland and the alliance, especially in the field of security policy, the government said.

Amherd's participation in the North Atlantic Council was the first-ever by a Swiss defence minister.

In concrete terms, the Swiss government wants to participate in more NATO exercises and to develop better coordination between the Swiss army and the bloc.

Switzerland is even ready to accept, in some situations, its participation in the NATO’s ‘assistance clause’ — the principle of collective defence, implying that an attack on one member is viewed as an attack on all.

This means that if a NATO country is attacked, the other members of the alliance will provide help.

Switzerland’s principle of “armed neutrality” means the country can defend itself against an invasion, but it can’t engage militarily to defend other nations in an armed conflict.

Swiss Defence Minister Viola Amherd traveled to Brussels to 'get closer' to NATO. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Amherd did qualify her agreement, however, by saying that invoking the assistance clause would be decided on a "case by case" basis on the Swiss side.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Switzerland in NATO?

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Why is Switzerland so keen on getting closer to NATO?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a major paradigm shift in terms of Switzerland’s non-involvement in foreign affairs.

Though the Swiss have been staunch defenders of their neutrality, fewer now believe that it protects Switzerland.

The "Security 2022" study, conducted by the Swiss military academy and the Centre for Security Studies — both attached to ETH Zurich university — indicated that while the vast majority (89 percent) of respondents still back the principle of neutrality, the support has declined since the war in Ukraine began in February 2022..

"Only 58 percent of the Swiss population remains convinced that neutrality protects Switzerland from international conflicts, compared to 69 percent in January," the survey showed.

READ MORE: NATO in, neutrality out: How the Ukraine invasion impacted Switzerland

Does this mean Switzerland is considering joining NATO?

Though Some Swiss politicians are pushing for a greater degree of NATO integration, few have actually called for Switzerland to join the bloc. 

Such a step would require rescinding neutrality for the first time since 1815 — the year the law was adapted.

In fact, it is precisely because of this longstanding policy that the government can’t allow the re-export of Swiss weaponry to Ukraine.

However, as Amherd's visit to Brussels proves, Switzerland would like to have closer ties with the alliance.

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What relationship does Switzerland have with NATO now?

While not a part of NATO per se, Switzerland has nevertheless close ties with the organisation through NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, which allows it to build an “individual relationship” with NATO.

So what exactly does this mean?

According to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, "The PfP provides Switzerland with an institutional framework for dialogue on security policy issues with other countries.

"This is important given that Switzerland is one of the few countries between the Atlantic and Ukraine that belongs neither to the European Union. which has its own common security and defence policy, nor to NATO."

And while being part of PfP is not going to plunge Switzerland into an armed conflict, "it helps prepare Switzerland’s armed forces for their participation in peace-keeping missions abroad under the command of NATO, the EU or the United Nations", according to authorities. 

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