Is Switzerland on the way to a European security alliance?

Swiss army officers during the presentation of the standard of the 65th Infantry Battalion in Walenstadt in June 2020. The battalion has completed its support service during the coronavirus pandemic. Keystone / Gian Ehrenzeller

As the war in Ukraine continues, Switzerland is calling for greater military cooperation. How far can the small country bend its famous neutrality?

This content was published on April 11, 2022 – 11:15 am

Europe is rearming. Many countries believe that the Russian aggression and the war in Ukraine have fundamentally changed the security situation across the continent. In Switzerland, too, the bourgeois parties and the National Council’s Security Policy Committee are demanding more resources for the army.

Fabio Wasserfallen, professor of European politics at the University of Bern, recently conducted a study, in collaboration with other scientists, on behalf of tamedia† The war in Ukraine certainly seems to worry the population, but the majority of Swiss feel relatively safe in the country. 45% think that Switzerland should arm itself, 41% think it is not necessary, 8% want to disarm and 6% doubt.

The think tank Avenir Suisse, close to economic circles, sees a different solution. It revolves around closer cooperation with NATO and the European Network of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). The authors of a study on security policyExternal link Recently published by Avenir Suisse, Switzerland is asking to show more pragmatism in putting its neutrality into practice and to collaborate more on a transnational level.

>> Switzerland is already cooperating with NATO under the Partnership for Peace and is currently considering participating in certain CSP projects. Learn more in the following article:

The authors are mainly inspired by Sweden and Finland. The two countries have distanced themselves from their neutrality and today consider themselves “non-aligned”. Since the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Sweden and Finland have heavily armed themselves and intensified their cooperation with NATO.

Austria’s neutrality is based on the other

Austria and Switzerland have a lot in common: the two countries are neutral and have a militia army, they are in the heart of the Alps and of Europe, and are more or less comparable in size and population.

According to Avenir Suisse, however, the Austrian army is less powerful and enjoys a lower status than in Switzerland due to budget cuts. “Austria’s austerity policy is only possible thanks to a pragmatic management of neutrality,” the report said. Austria is making up for its shortcomings with strong transnational cooperation and an orientation towards collective security in Europe.

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Julia Hofstetter, president of the non-governmental organization Women In International Security (WIIS) SwitzerlandExternal link, understands the need for more security. “Especially for countries that share a border with Russia, the desire for increased military security and closer cooperation with NATO is understandable.” Nevertheless, she believes that the increase in national defense investment needs to be critically discussed and civil society involved. “There is a risk that the current climate will be used for further militarization and an arms race, making the situation in Europe more unpredictable than safe.”

For European countries that do not share a border with Russia and are not part of a defense alliance like NATO, the threats are very different. “For countries like Switzerland, Russia is a greater threat in terms of political influence, disinformation or cyber-attacks,” said Julia Hofstetter.

According to her, Switzerland could already tackle this complex threat situation by working together with NATO and the EU, especially when it comes to sharing experiences and developing skills. “However, in response to the war in Ukraine, NATO and PESCO should emphasize conventional rearmament. You can therefore ask yourself whether other multilateral actors and forums are not more important for Switzerland in this area.”

She also emphasizes the importance of involving civil society organisations, which have a broader vision of safety and which focus more on protecting people.

Neutrality, an obstacle to overcome

Closer military cooperation may meet another obstacle: Swiss neutrality. It enjoys great popular support. But according to the aforementioned survey, only 24% of Swiss consider it “non-negotiable”. Most respondents find neutrality useful, but feel that there is some leeway.

According to Avenir Suisse’s study, the issue of neutrality must be dealt with fairly. “Neutrality only finds its limits when Switzerland is involved in international military planning. Until aid is pledged, such an approach is compatible with the law of neutrality.

Common Airspace Defence

Even before the start of the war in Ukraine, Switzerland decided to purchase 36 F-35 fighters. According to the think tank Avenir Suisse, which is close to economic circles, the potential of new combat aircraft could be fully exploited with enhanced transnational cooperation, as the F-35 is specifically designed for attack missions within an alliance, such as NATO.

Thanks to these jets, the airspace could be jointly defended. This would make sense, as it would be more likely that a treaty conflict would affect Europe as a whole rather than Switzerland alone.

© Keystone / Urs Flueeler

Gerhard Pfister, chairman of the political party The Centre, also spoke about common airspace defense with the EU in a recent interview.External link: neutral Switzerland could also contribute to joint air surveillance tasks with its combat aircraft.

Despite everything, the left parties and the Group for a Switzerland Without an Army (GSsA) continue to collect signatures for an initiative against the takeover of the F-35. According to the GSsA, the purchase of these combat aircraft makes no sense in military policy and does not provide additional security. “An attack on Switzerland by Russian ground troops is out of the question”, we read on the website of the GSsAExternal link† “Nuclear war would have broken out before the first Russian soldier set foot on Swiss soil, because before that, NATO countries would have attacked themselves.” According to a study by tamediahowever, the initiative against the purchase of combat aircraft is rejected by 60% of the respondents.

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The UDC, party of the conservative right, does not share this view. Asked by, the UDC said that in its view, such cooperation clearly goes against Swiss neutrality.

The party plans to launch a popular initiative to enshrine universal neutrality in the Constitution. Cooperation with NATO or CSP would therefore no longer be relevant.

“Switzerland’s perpetual armed neutrality has been a guarantee of peace and security for our country for more than 200 years,” writes Andrea Sommer of the General Secretariat of the Swiss SVP. “The fact that such malicious discussions [sur la coopération militaire] performed shows that the law of neutrality needs to be defined more precisely.”

Avenir Suisse also agrees that issues of neutrality policy need to be clarified so that Switzerland can be better integrated into NATO’s collective structures.

Prefer PESCO to NATO

According to political scientist Fabio Wasserfallen, the development of international cooperation within NATO and the EU will be decisive. “Cooperation within the CSP alliance will intensify, which should then lead to greater potential for cooperation with Switzerland.”

He believes that cooperation with European states should be easier than cooperation with NATO. Admittedly, the members of PESCO have also set themselves the goal of cooperating in defence, but there is (yet) no real obligation to provide assistance, such as with NATO.

The authors of the study by Avenir Suisse conclude that closer cooperation with NATO would make more sense for Switzerland at a military-strategic level, but that cooperation with the EU at a political level would be more realistic. In the above poll, a majority of respondents are also in favor of Switzerland’s participation in PESCO, while two-thirds reject NATO membership.

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