Neutrality: Majority of Swiss now back closer ties with Nato

A year after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a majority in Switzerland now support closer ties with NATO, the government said Thursday -- a first in the country known for military neutrality.

Neutrality: Majority of Swiss now back closer ties with Nato
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) and Swiss President Ignazio Cassis (L) hold a press conference following their talks in Kyiv on October 20, 2022. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

The Swiss military academy and the Centre for Security Studies — both attached to ETH Zurich university — publish an annual survey of public opinion on foreign, security and defence policy issues, to evaluate long-term trends.

It showed that in January, 55 percent of the Swiss population favoured closer ties with NATO — up 10 percentage points from the January 2021 survey.

“It is the first time that a small majority of the population has been of this opinion,” the defence ministry said in a statement.

“Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Swiss have become more pessimistic about the future of our country and the world. They also now take a more critical look at neutrality and declare themselves ready for more cooperation,” it concluded.

That said, only a third of those questioned backed Switzerland actually joining NATO.

Switzerland’s long-standing position has been one of well-armed neutrality and the landlocked country of 8.6 million people has mandatory conscription for men.

The survey found 53 percent thought the principle of neutrality did not preclude Switzerland from planning its military defence in cooperation with NATO.

Switzerland is not a member of NATO but cooperates with the defence alliance within the Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, where it can voice concerns on foreign policy and security issues.

The principle of Swiss neutrality is backed by 91 percent, though that figure is down six percentage points from January 2022.

Most Swiss (unchanged at 57 percent) remain in favour of “differentiated neutrality” — namely that Switzerland remains militarily neutral but takes a different position on the political level.

Switzerland has aligned itself with the sanctions imposed on Russia by the surrounding European Union.

As in a poll conducted in June, a clear majority (70 percent) believe the sanctions are compatible with neutrality.

In recent weeks, Kyiv and its allies have stepped up veiled criticism of Switzerland’s position.

Although it has imposed sanctions on Russia, Bern has refused to permit the re-export of Swiss-made weapons to Ukraine.

The LINK institute surveyed 1,238 people by telephone between January 3rd and 20th.

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Swiss MPs urge allowing arms transfers to Ukraine under strict conditions

The lower house of the Swiss parliament this week narrowly voted to back allowing the transfer of Swiss-made arms to Ukraine - but only under conditions extremely unlikely to materialise.

Swiss MPs urge allowing arms transfers to Ukraine under strict conditions

The National Council voted with 98 votes in favour, 96 against and two abstentions to push the government to allow the re-export of Swiss weaponry to Ukraine – currently banned under the country’s strict military neutrality laws.

The motion called for waiving the no re-export clauses of countries wishing to transfer Swiss-made arms to Ukrainian forces, but only if the United Nations Security Council first declares Russia’s war there illegal.

With Russia wielding veto powers on the Security Council, that is a very unlikely scenario.

The issue of Switzerland’s long tradition of neutrality has been hotly debated since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

READ ALSO: Swiss president opposes arms experts to Ukraine – citing neutrality

While the wealthy Alpine country, which is not a member of the European Union, has followed the bloc’s lead on sanctions targeting Moscow, it has so far shown less flexibility on its military neutrality.

Despite pressure from Kyiv and its allies, Switzerland has so far refused to allow countries that hold Swiss-made weaponry to re-export it to Ukraine.

To date, it has rejected explicit requests from Germany, Spain and Denmark, pointing to its War Materiel Act, which bars all re-export if the recipient
country is in an international armed conflict.

READ ALSO: Why Switzerland’s neutrality has always been ‘malleable’

Wednesday’s lower house vote was on just one of a range of initiatives under way in parliament towards relaxing the re-export rules to make it possible for Swiss-made weaponry to be transferred by third countries to Ukraine.

Wednesday’s decision will still need to be approved in the upper house, the Council of States, which on Monday rejected a separate initiative that would have permitted the re-export of arms to specific democracies.

The process towards a final decision, with back and forth debates between the chambers and the government, followed by a probable referendum under Switzerland’s direct democracy system, is likely to take months.