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EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

It is common knowledge that Switzerland is a neutral country, but not everyone knows how this came about and what exactly “neutrality” means.

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?
Switzerland is proudly neutral.Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

If you ask a random person to name a neutral country, chances are they won’t say “Turkmenistan”.

The reason is that many people may not even know that this central-Asian nation is indeed neutral, along with Finland, Malta, Ireland, Japan, Liechtenstein, Sweden, and Vatican City.

In most people’s minds, the word “neutrality” is synonymous with Switzerland, in much the same way as cheese, chocolate, and watches.

In this sense, Switzerland may well be the world’s most famous neutral nation, which means it must remain impartial, not take sides in any international conflicts, and its forces can only be used for self-defence and internal security.

At least this was the idea behind the country’s earliest move toward neutrality in the 16th century. Interestingly, it was not driven by any pacifist inclinations but by desire for self-preservation and survival.

This is what history tells us:

It may come as a surprise that in the Middle Ages Switzerland was a nation of warriors and mercenaries, who fought on the side of those who paid them the most.

In one such conflict, which took place in September of 1515,  Swiss soldiers fought and lost against France in the Battle of Marignano, in present-day Italy.

That was, of course, long before the Swiss army knife was invented, and the soldiers fought with a pike — a long thrusting spear that could inflict a lot of damage on the enemy. 

Nevertheless, the Swiss lost that battle, and decided to cut their losses and avoid further involvement in bloody wars.

They managed to stay out of trouble until 1798, when Napoleon invaded the country, making it part of the marauding French empire and compromising its neutrality.

However, after Napoleon was famously defeated at Waterloo in 1815, Switzerland’s “perpetual neutrality” was declared at the Congress of Vienna the same year. Great powers of Europe decided that Switzerland would provide a convenient geographical buffer between quarreling France and Austria, and its neutrality would be a stabilising  factor in an unstable region.

Just over 200 years later, in 1920, the newly created — appropriately enough, in Geneva — League of Nations, officially recognised Swiss neutrality.

Swiss Vatican guards started out as mercenaries hired to protect Pope Julius II in 1505. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

More history of Switzerland’s neutrality can be found in this government report (in English).

Has the policy of neutrality been good for Switzerland?

In many ways, it has been a double-edged sword: on one hand, it allowed Switzerland to stay out of armed conflicts that devastated much of Europe, including both world wars. But on the other, it created some incongruous situations.

For instance, in the 1990s, Switzerland has sent its troops on peacekeeping missions to conflict zones but, unlike soldiers from other nations serving in this capacity, the Swiss could not carry weapons (which is somewhat of a paradox, given that guns are as ubiquitous in Switzerland as chocolate and edelweiss).

EXPLAINED: Understanding Switzerland’s obsession with guns

This was the case in Kosovo in 1999, where in the middle of an armed conflict Swiss troops were walking around empty-handed and had to be protected by their (armed) German and Austrian counterparts.

This situation proved to be an embarrassment to people back in Switzerland who in 2001 finally voted in a referendum to allow soldiers taking part in international peacekeeping missions to carry weapons.

Political neutrality had also kept Switzerland out of the United Nations for decades, even though a number of UN agencies are headquartered in Geneva and the country was one of the largest contributors to the UN budget —all that without having any say in the decision making process.

That too changed in 2002, when the Swiss voted at last to join the organisation.  

The United Nations building in Geneva. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Do the Swiss want to remain neutral?

For tiny Switzerland, remaining neutral in the 21st-century world of multilateralism is becoming more challenging, especially when surrounded on all sides by one of the largest international political alliances of all —the European Union.

Still, as various studies and surveys have consistently shown, for the vast majority of the people, neutrality is a source of national pride and identity, and it is strongly linked to their sense of independence self-determination.

For this reason it is unlikely that Switzerland will want to change the status quo, at least for the time being.

The Swiss just can’t remain neutral about that.

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OPINION: A lower retirement age for women in Switzerland can no longer be justified

Having a lower retirement age for women is a throwback to more patronising times, yet the Swiss government has struggled to introduce parity in this area for decades. As the latest reform attempt comes to a popular vote, Clare O’Dea asks what’s behind female resistance to this change.

OPINION: A lower retirement age for women in Switzerland can no longer be justified

The retirement age in Switzerland is 64 for women and 65 for men. For generations of Swiss people, this differential treatment is standard. The gap used to be bigger. From 1962 to 1997, women retired at 62.
On September 25, Swiss voters will have their say on a reform of the state pension system (AHV / AVS), which would raise the retirement age for women to 65 and use a VAT hike to help finance pensions. The Old Age and Survivors’ Insurance has been running a deficit since 2014 and this reform is billed as a crucial package to keep it viable.

Is earlier retirement for women a historical benefit worth defending or should it be abandoned in the interests of fairness and financial good sense? If women voters alone could decide, the proposal would be rejected.

READ ALSO: Reader question: How long must I work in Switzerland to qualify for a pension?

According to the most recent poll, 64 per cent of women intend to vote against the reform, while 71 of male voters approve of the law. This is a much higher gender difference than is usually seen, even in sex-specific voting issues. These numbers, if sustained, would ultimately deliver a yes vote but leave a bitter taste for women.

As a woman who will be directly affected by this decision in the not-too-distant future – well, 15 years from now – and someone who made all the classic gender-based “mistakes” when it comes to my own pension provision, I don’t see this potential change as a threat. If anything, it is an opportunity, a wake-up call.
Swiss women earn less than men over their lifetimes for several well-documented yet seemingly unshakable reasons. Mostly these relate directly or indirectly to time spent caring for children or other family members.

Caring responsibilities, even the hypothetical possibility of such responsibilities, influence women’s career choices, the number of hours they work, and their income. This burden also influences how women are perceived and rewarded as employees.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does the Swiss pension system work – and how much will I receive?

But there is also a kind of fatalism on the part of women in long-term partnerships who know they can’t sustain a career as the “main earner” without a “wife-like” partner to rely on, so they do not try. Divorced women usually find it’s too late to catch up.

Three things that are bad for pension provision are career interruptions, part-time hours and lower pay. Yet this is the norm for most working women over the long term, mothers in particular.

As I see it, there are three ways to improve matters. Either women change to behave more like male workers, the system changes to accommodate existing patterns better, or we change the existing family patterns altogether.


The problem is that mother workers can only become more like father workers when men pick up the slack (choosing family-friendly jobs, reducing their hours, taking family-centred career breaks, leaning in at home). Where else will the spare capacity come from?

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about retiring in Switzerland

I think all three changes need to happen in parallel. Some progress has already been made. There is no point in hanging around with the retirement age reform. It’s one of the few changes that can be achieved with the stroke of a pen.

Those campaigning against harmonising the retirement age say that all the other things dragging down women’s lifetime earnings – the structure of the labour market, lack of affordable childcare, gender pay gap, the persistence of traditional gender roles – need to be fixed first before we demand an extra year of work from women. That seems defeatist and totally impractical to me.

The priority for all is to avoid women having a much greater risk of poverty in old age as they do now, especially divorced women and widows.

Swiss women currently receive 37 percent less than men through all three types of pension provision combined – the state pension, occupational schemes and private pension. The picture in Switzerland is worse than in most industrialised countries because of the prevalence of part-time work for women – a double-edged sword.

Swiss voters turned down two previous proposals to level up the retirement age for women – in 2004 and 2017. However, taking into account the compensatory measures included in the current reform, that potential extra working year should not be viewed as a penalty.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I take my pension money with me when I leave Switzerland?

If that year is spent working, not only will the women have their salary, but they will also have the opportunity to contribute a bit more to the two other streams of pension funding – occupational pensions and voluntary private pensions.

Working also means being physically active, having more social interactions and stimulating your brain. These are all pillars of brain health that help protect against the onset of dementia, a disease that women are twice as likely to suffer from.

The absolute refusal to acknowledge that an ageing population and increasing life expectancy require changes to long-standing pension norms is one of the blind spots of the Left in Switzerland. According to the UBS International Pension Gap Index, the proportion of active (working) to retired people will decrease from the current level of 3 to 1 down to 2 to 1 by 2050.

The reasons why Swiss women should retire one year earlier than men are lost of the mists of time. Well, not quite, there was some talk of “physiological disadvantage” and wives keeping their older retired husbands company. It seems rather silly now.

The final justification left for an early exit from the workforce is that it offers some compensation for all the other financial injustices. That’s a passive rather than an active approach to our problems. I see this reform as part of the solution. Let’s get on with it.