WITH the war in Ukraine raging, and the European Union taking a firm public stand against Russia, the future of Switzerland’s traditional neutrality is coming under question.
For hundreds of years, the Swiss have famously remained resolutely independent from foreign entanglements. Despite protracted pressure and negotiations, they refuse to sign up to full membership of the EU, belonging only to the European Free Trade Area, along with Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. And in 1992, they voted against joining an earlier manifestation of European unity, the European Economic Area.
However, despite this, the country has generally aligned itself with EU sanctions against Russia and will take a seat on the United Nations Security Council next year, putting it at the centre of geopolitical decision-making.
Switzerland’s policy of neutrality goes back to the early 16th century and it has not participated in a foreign war since its neutrality was established by the Treaty of Paris in 1815.
But its accession to the Security Council and the ongoing Ukraine war are being seen by some analysts as the point where it may finally have to come down on one side or another in a conflict.
Speaking on Tuesday at the UN General Assembly in New York, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis sharply rebuked Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and called on Moscow to end the war.
He insisted this stance was compatible with Swiss neutrality. Switzerland would not participate militarily in the conflict, but neutrality does not mean indifference or lack of solidarity, he added. ‘We are committed to upholding the principles of freedom, democracy and the rule of law – values that are enshrined in our federal constitution.’
Inevitably though, this positioning calls into question the very nature of Switzerland’s long-standing neutrality status.
One former Russian diplomat, Boris Bondarev, believes that the Kremlin never expected the Swiss to align themselves with EU sanctions. Now Russia has classified Switzerland as an unfriendly country and no longer politically neutral.
Switzerland has agreed to much of the EU sanctions policy, including the banning of Russian gold imports – no mean concession, given that its five refineries handle some 70 per cent of the world’s raw gold. It has already welcomed more than 60,000 refugees from Ukraine, and numbers are expected to rise to as many as 120,000.
But at the same time, it has signalled a shift towards greater integration into global policies, such as continuing its strategic partnership with the US, and looking to boost ties with Nato, including ‘increased participation in exercises, and expansion of military co-operation capacity’.
The Swiss government is however continuing to play its canny game, in the same way it deals with pressure from Brussels to fully join the EU. Ministers in Bern claim that affiliation with the UN has never called its neutrality into question, and the defence of peace and security and respect for international law are values shared by all EU countries and the UN.
However, as far as neutrality goes, Switzerland is now seen as walking a very fine line with such a policy. Having agreed to take up its Security Council seat, the question arises in any situation of conflict – whose side are you on?
Analyst Daniel Warner has identified a problem of interpretation: ‘Human rights are often dealt with in a very instrumental way. When it suits us, we take these fundamental principles very seriously. But when it doesn’t suit, everything is suddenly very relative.’
In the final analysis, according to another political observer, Claude Longchamp, Switzerland just wants everything to stay as it is. However, the EU is aware that the status quo confers advantages that EU countries do not enjoy, and partial membership is no longer an option.
Switzerland’s diplomatic delaying tactics have suited it well so far, but the new scenario – Ukraine war, green energy policies, sanctions, and its role vis à vis the UN, Nato and other globalist organisations – changes everything.
Longchamp believes the next four years will mean fireworks for Switzerland and the neutrality question will need to be addressed. But it won’t lead to EU membership – instead, it will mean a second debate about the EEA.
So after 30 years, we’ll be back to the long-running EU tug-of-war. Longchamp says: ‘We Swiss hope that the EU will go under before we do.’
But for the time being, Switzerland’s new definition of political neutrality will ensure it can continue to keep one foot in each camp at the same time.