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Switzerland and a strange kind of neutrality


CHATTING to the physiotherapist at my Swiss health centre on Friday, I explained that November 11 is a solemn day in Britain, when people honour those who died for their country, notably in the two World Wars.

‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘we don’t do anything like that. No wars!’ It turns out that this same November 11 marks the beginning of the local planning and rehearsals for next February’s Fasnacht, the Swiss pre-Lenten Carnival, with masks, trolls and gugga bands. 

An unfortunate coincidence, perhaps, but given that many foreigners consider Swiss neutrality means letting others fight their battles while they eat chocolate and go skiing, Switzerland’s claim to uphold its traditional political neutrality is starting to wear a bit thin. There is a growing perception, even among the Swiss themselves, that they can no longer have it both ways – military non-intervention alongside non-military political alignments.

Last week, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party launched an initiative which aims to prohibit Switzerland from entering into defence alliances and participating in sanctions.

Known as the ‘neutrality initiative’, the campaign has 18 months in which to collect 100,000 citizens’ signatures to prompt a referendum on the proposal. The party wishes to anchor ‘perpetual and armed neutrality’ in the country’s constitution, whereby they may not join any military or defence alliance, other than following a direct attack on Switzerland.

This initiative highlights the problem for the Swiss. It would mean that ‘non-military coercive measures’ against any warring state would be prohibited, including sanctions. But Switzerland has obligations to the United Nations, and maintains an export-oriented arms industry. How does this reconcile with its professed humanitarian tradition?

The dilemma has been heightened since the start of the Ukraine war. Germany has finally agreed to deliver tanks to the Ukrainians, who now need ammunition. The necessary materials are manufactured in Switzerland and exported to Germany. To Ukraine’s dismay, the Swiss government has made its position clear. No re-exporting of ammunition, but unlimited solidarity. To confirm this, President Cassis went to Kiev last month, ostensibly for the planning of humanitarian aid for the winter. Such a visit would not normally fall within the President’s remit, but the gesture was seen as sufficiently important to secure solidarity photographs with President Zelensky.

The Ukrainians themselves are having some difficulty in getting their heads round this. The Swiss ambassador to Ukraine, Claude Wild, has pointed out that many people, bloggers especially, are ‘getting annoyed’ and even extremely critical of Switzerland. He stresses that his country is fundamentally held to this decision by neutrality. ‘There can be no agreement to a request for the transfer of war material of Swiss origin to Ukraine as long as that country is involved in an international armed conflict.’

Finally, while re-affirming its policy of political neutrality, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has just announced a fresh financial aid package of CHF100million (£89million) for Ukraine. Both of these developments have reignited debate as to how exactly Switzerland defines ‘neutrality’. 

The liberal Green Party wants to allow arms exports if a democracy has to defend itself on its own territory. Centrists reject this, but demand a new definition of neutrality. Others make a distinction between direct exports and re-directing exports from other countries. Nitpicking such as this is reminiscent of debates about angels dancing on the head of a pin, but historian Hans-Urich Jost is relaxed about this. ‘Neutrality in Switzerland has always been stretchable and kneadable, like chewing gum,’ he says.

Meanwhile, at the G20 conference in Bali, UK Prime Minister Sunak has told Russian foreign minister Lavrov to ‘get out of Ukraine and end this barbaric war’, saying it is unacceptable for any country to invade its neighbours, kill civilians and threaten nuclear war. In this, the UK stands shoulder to shoulder with its Nato allies and, in particular, the US.

Confusing, this, since Ukraine is not a fellow member of Nato, much as it would like to be.

At the same time, US President Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the G20 summit, with a handshake. ‘As leaders of our two nations, we share a responsibility, in my view, to show that China and the United States can manage our differences, prevent competition from becoming anything ever near conflict, and to find ways to work together on urgent global issues that require our mutual cooperation,’ said Biden.

Yet there was no indication that the President raised any of the sovereignty issues which for years have bedevilled relations between China and the West, such as the invasion of Tibet or the suppression and enslavement of the Uyghur people in the north-western region of Xinjiang. Indeed, the President has previously described China as ‘the biggest challenge to international order’ and said that the US would defend the self-governing island of Taiwan if Beijing were to invade. America’s upholding the virtues of sovereignty and self-determination is blatantly and selectively self-regarding, underpinned by its intention to maintain US hegemony throughout the world.

Therein lies the problem for the Swiss, and indeed for any other sovereign state which fails to follow the US lead. Through the all-powerful impact of a weaponised US dollar, small nations such as Switzerland have little clout. Confrontation over solidarity with Zelensky’s Ukraine could quite feasibly lead to the catastrophic economic development of being shut out of the interbank messaging system SWIFT, similar to the agreement between the US, Canada and their EU allies to remove Russian banks earlier in the year. 

While the US maintains so much economic power over supposedly peace-seeking organisations such as the UN, and other western countries which might otherwise criticise the global reach of its interventionism, it remains increasingly dangerous for the Swiss to vaunt any single-minded pursuit of complete military neutrality.

TCW has already highlighted the way in which Switzerland’s diplomatic delaying tactics have suited it well so far, but with the fragmentation of political opinion now surfacing within the Swiss population itself, it remains to be seen just how long this ‘beacon of neutrality and humanitarianism’ can keep riding those two horses at once.

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Janice Davis
Janice Davis
Janice Davis is a grandmother and former girls’ grammar school teacher

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