Switzerland mulls ‘neutrality referendum’ amid Ukraine backlash

Neutrality is synonymous with Switzerland, but what does it actually mean?

Swiss President Ignazio Cassis removes his mask. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Swiss President Ignazio Cassis removes his mask. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Recent war-related moves such as imposition of sanctions on Russia, along with suggestions from some MPs to allow arms deliveries to Ukraine, raise up questions about  Switzerland’s long-standing tradition of neutrality.

These events have prompted some Swiss MPs from all sides of the political spectrum to suggest a referendum, so the question of neutrality can be decided by the voters.

One deputy, Hans-Peter Portmann, told SonntagsZeitung that “while neutrality is anchored in the Constitution, the laws lack provisions on how Switzerland should behave as a neutral country”.

READ MORE: Sanctions on Russia: Is Switzerland still a neutral nation?

By holding a referendum on the matter, the population could have their say on what exactly it means to be neutral. 

Criticism has grown since Switzerland’s decision to place sanctions on Russia, particularly from the centre-right and far-right of the political spectrum. 

MP Roger Köppel, from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), said at the time that the Swiss government had “buckled”, arguing that it “did not have the strength to uphold (the principle of) neutrality”.

When the announcement was made, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis acknowledged that while the step was “unique” Switzerland was not abandoning its “untouchable” commitment to neutrality, countering that “playing into the hands of an aggressor is not neutral.”

“This is a one-time step by Switzerland, which we should not take lightly from the point of view of neutrality.”

As reported by The Local in March, while Switzerland has historically retained a strong commitment to military neutrality, for instance by opting out of military arrangements such as NATO, there has been a consistent willingness to form political alliances, such as becoming a part of the United Nations. 

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‘Geopolitical instability’: Swiss government says not the time to change ministers

The Swiss government retained its foreign and defence ministers during a reshuffle on Thursday, saying the "current geopolitical instability" meant now was not the time for change.

'Geopolitical instability': Swiss government says not the time to change ministers

The reshuffle came a day after lawmakers chose the first new members of government in four years, as part of a rejig at the top of one of Europe’s
major economies.

Ignazio Cassis stays on as foreign minister — a role he has held since 2017 — and Defence Minister Viola Amherd remains in charge of Switzerland’s  armed neutrality after four years in the job.

Seats in the seven-member Federal Council government rarely come up for grabs but two became available after Finance Minister Ueli Maurer and Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga announced they were stepping down.

The two newcomers are Albert Rösti, an agricultural engineer by training who will take over the environment ministry, while Elisabeth Baume-Schneider becomes justice minister. She replaces Karin Keller-Sutter — the only member to switch portfolios — who becomes finance minister. 

The new line-up takes effect on January 1st.

Cassis, who also currently holds the presidency, said the decision to largely keep people in their posts was a consensual one.

“We based ourselves for this decision on criteria such as the current geopolitical instability and the need to guarantee continuity in the running
of challenging ministries of internal and foreign affairs,” he told reporters.

Guy Parmelin stays on as economy minister. 

Seats in the Federal Council are shared among the main political parties under a tacit decades-old agreement known as “the magic formula”, which generally remains unaffected by power shifts in parliament but reflects the spirit of compromise that characterises Swiss democracy.

While militarily neutral, Switzerland has matched the sanctions imposed on Russia by the neighbouring European Union over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We are responsible for the safety of our population and our country. That’s why I decided out of conviction to continue,” Defence Minister Amherd

READ MORE: LATEST: Swiss parliament elects new ministers to federal council