mw. Swiss sanctions against Russian assets abound. On 3 May 2022, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council (FAC-N) approved several amendments to the law that would, among other things, empower the Federal Council, i.e., the executive branch, to “independently” impose far-reaching sanctions and coercive measures against individuals and companies. On 8 May, the Swiss Social Democrats even topped these – in terms of the rule of law questionable – demands, and announced a motion in the National Council: the daily press reported that, according to co-president Mattea Meyer, Switzerland was not only to freeze assets of sanctioned Russian individuals and companies, but to expropriate them and hand them over to Ukraine for the reconstruction of the country!
Today, when unfortunately some politicians and most media editors in Switzerland no longer align their compass with the principle of neutrality and are prepared to throw the principles of the rule of law to the wind, it is a blessing to be able to talk to a parliamentarian like Franz Grüter, who does not lose his grounding in the Swiss state model even in this day and age. Franz Grüter has been a member of the National Council (Swiss People’s Party Lucerne) and an entrepreneur in the IT sector since 2015.
Current Concerns: Mr National Councillor Grüter, you recently became president of the National Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC-N). What is your task as president of this commission? Is it not rather difficult to hold this office in today’s atmosphere?
Franz Grüter: Yes, when I took over this function at the beginning of January, I assumed that the European dossier would continue to be at the centre of Swiss foreign policy. Six weeks later, something happened that no one expected: The Ukraine crisis escalated into a war. We have a completely new situation, and in my function as president of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I was virtually caught in the eye of the hurricane. To this day, I can feel how much the general mood has been stirred up, how questions of principle have been given different priorities overnight, how the neutrality issue has suddenly been thrust into the centre of a new discussion of principles. It is a very intense time for me, and probably will continue to be so. Now we are going to become a member of the UN Security Council, which is also a controversial issue. I will serve as FAC president for two years, i.e., until the end of 2023, so all this will happen during my term of office.
At the committee meeting of 3 May 2022, one of the issues was the authorisation of the Federal Council to “impose sanctions autonomously”. The media release spoke of a “paradigm shift”. Can you briefly outline the proposals that the FAC-N adopted?
We discussed the Embargo Act, which includes the regulation of the Federal Council’s powers when it comes to sanctions. Until now, the Federal Council was not allowed to order sanctions independently, unless Switzerland were in such an exceptional situation that ordering sanctions would have fallen under emergency law. But on 3 May, the Committee majority decided on a paradigm shift – paradigm shift is indeed the right word. Of course, Parliament will decide on this; in June, first the National Council will deal with it. The FAC wants the Federal Council to have the competency to order sanctions, not only against states, but also against persons and “entities”, i.e., companies. This raises many questions as to how this is compatible with the right of neutrality and how far it is affected. Because many citizens are aware of this, the Committee has also decided that we must put the issue of neutrality on the agenda as a priority. Hearings will be held on this after the summer break.
Yet, when people’s property is confiscated, besides neutrality there are also fundamental rights affected.
Yes, those are also questions concerning the rule of law, when expropriations are carried out virtually without court rulings. We have to be careful not to simply throw overboard our constitutional principles, our legal certainty as well as the guarantee of property.
The Committee minority – I assume that you belong to this – has tried to oppose the disregard for the principle of neutrality. Are there also parliamentarians from other groups besides the Swiss People’s Party who want to take countermeasures?
Unfortunately, as President of the Committee, I am bound by the secrecy of the Commission. We do not say who said what and who voted how.
NATO: “Switzerland must not take part, otherwise it is simply no longer neutral”
Some Swiss politicians and media are using the current situation to move closer to NATO, beyond the “Partnership for Peace”. As a Swiss officer, how do you see this?
This question is of course also related to neutrality. Switzerland has been saved from bloody conflicts over the last 200 years in part thanks to its neutrality. In my view, neutrality is an important pillar of Swiss foreign policy. It has always enabled us, as a small state, not only to remain secure, but also to be a place which disputing parties could turn to, where mediation is to be had, on neutral ground. Of course, that is only possible if we do not take sides, if we do not enter into a conflict ourselves. NATO was a defensive alliance, but in the past, it has also waged offensive wars, for example in Serbia. Switzerland must not take part in anything like this; otherwise, it is simply no longer neutral. The PfP programme is probably still acceptable; we have been involved in it for a long time, but anything beyond that is very, very thorny. As things stand today, a closer affiliation with NATO would certainly pose a massive threat to neutrality.
Former ambassador Paul Widmer says that even Switzerland’s accession to the PfP was questionable from the point of view of neutrality.
In certain areas – when I think of cyber security or the intelligence service – there is an exchange today that may make sense. We have also bought armaments from Western countries, including the F-35. From a purely technological point of view, we might allow ourselves to be integrated into these systems, but we would have to draw very clear lines there. Entering into this alliance or coming so close that we even send troops abroad, that we participate in military exercises, that is going much, very much too far. That would be a nail in the coffin of neutrality, which is why, in my view, we must not do it under any circumstances.
“The question of neutrality invades the DNA of our country so deeply that we absolutely need to discuss all this”
Now the question is: what should we do? Recently you said that one should not make short-term decisions during a crisis. As FAC president, you have put neutrality on the Committee’s agenda as a key issue. In September, the two Foreign Affairs Committees of the National Council and the Council of States will discuss neutrality. What do you hope to gain from this?
It is actually an old leadership principle: when you are in an extremely emotionally charged mood, you should never make short-term decisions that have a long-term effect, because those are usually no-good decisions.
The question of neutrality invades the DNA of our country so deeply that we need to discuss all this, we absolutely have to do so! So much has happened, with the sanctions that have been taken, with the efforts to join NATO or move closer to it, with membership in the UN Security Council. But I think we need to have this discussion when the dust has settled a little, when we can talk about these issues from a certain distance.
In the past, we have seen time and again that decisions made in the heat of the moment were wrong decisions in the medium and long term. After the Fukushima disaster, two or three days later, the Federal Council announced that it was phasing out nuclear power, but today, ten or twelve years later, we realise that there are new technologies. We are creating a bottleneck for energy supply security. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to ask the question at the time, but then to wait a little until the emotions had subsided.
Neutrality is very important for our country, which is why we will hold hearings in the autumn. You can look at this question in purely legal terms, we will also hear lawyers, but you can also look at the question in political terms. For example, the ICRC, has always helped people in this world, on both sides, has always spoken and negotiated with all warring parties, which is why ICRC head Peter Maurer has not only been to Ukraine, but also to Moscow. I would like to hear someone from the ICRC, for example: How important is neutrality for the Red Cross, which is, after all, also a Swiss tradition, in the field of humanitarian aid?
There will be a wide consultation. It must be possible to discuss the question of neutrality controversially. But of course, I hope that in the end the result will be that we return to the importance of neutrality and that we will come to the conclusion that we must be prepared to hazard even disadvantages. Being neutral is of course unpleasant. It is much easier and much more comfortable not to be neutral: Then you simply declare your support for one side. If you say: we are neutral, then of course you are put under pressure by both sides, and it has been no different in the current war. Both foreign ministers have turned to Switzerland and asked which side we are on. It would have been up to the Federal Council to say: We are neutral and we shall remain neutral. They did not do so, and that is very regrettable. Switzerland has certainly weakened its traditional role of supplier of “good offices”.
“It is good that at the very end, the Swiss people can decide on it”
There will probably also be a popular initiative that wants to write into the Federal Constitution not only that Swiss neutrality is armed and perpetual. In the future, we will have to speak of integral [i.e., all-encompassing] neutrality and define the term more broadly and more deeply.
Former Federal Councillor Christoph Blocher is planning such a popular initiative. What is the status here? And how can we initiate a broad discussion?
There is a task force working on different versions. The initiative will come, and I think it is good that at the very end, the Swiss people can decide on it.
I am convinced that the importance of neutrality is much more widely supported among the population than is perceived here in Bern and especially in the media. There have been polls on whether Switzerland should supply weapons to Ukraine – which, by the way, is also demanded by politicians and media. Out of x-thousands of people who took part in online surveys – now you can say that this is not representative, but it is x-thousands of people – two-thirds said: No, that will not do, it violates our neutrality.
That is why I believe that it is necessary that in the end, the Swiss people decide at the ballot box: Do we want to continue to uphold neutrality? Do we even want to go so far as to consider “integral neutrality”? We will probably only be able to solve this by way of the people and not through parliament and the Federal Council.
Self-sufficiency: Sanctions have an effect mainly on one’s own population
A motion of the FAC-N of 3 May demanded the renunciation of trade with Russian oil and gas. How will Switzerland deal with energy from Russia?
Such demands may sound popular with certain people, but we must have the strength to see that the consequences are so extreme that we should not be over-hasty in deciding something of this sort. Fortunately, this motion was rejected by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council on 3 May, by 13 votes to 12, with the main justification that trade could be transferred to other countries practically overnight.
Some related general background: the crisis once again shows how dependent we have become, not only in terms of energy – food safety is also at least at risk in certain countries. The sanctions against Russia are not actually having much effect there at the moment. This week it became known that the oil imports the EU are blocking are already being bought by India in the same quantity. More or less all Western countries have taken these sanctions – but the rest of the world, India, China, many Arab countries, Africa, the majority of countries, have not taken any sanctions. Russia is not selling less oil because of this; they are simply selling it to other countries.
Where the sanctions do have an effect, however, is on our own population. We have a massive increase in the price of energy, fuel prices are hardly affordable for many small earners, diesel 2.20, 2.30 francs. People who depend on cars are really suffering. We have to make sure that the sanctions do not become a tit-for-tat to our own population. In Switzerland, dependency is perhaps not so very bad, but in Germany, energy supply security is really no longer guaranteed. They are much more dependent on Russian gas; thousands of jobs are at stake there.
Mr National Councillor Grüter, thank you very much for the interview. •
In his “diary” Franz Grüter describes his two-day long visit with Federal President Ignazio Cassis at the Ukrainian border where they spoke with various people and offered humanitarian help.
“How can a brief statement be made after these two days? A war only knows losers. The suffering of the people is great. Switzerland’s humanitarian aid works well, is efficient and earns support. With that, the people can be helped just where they are. There is still hope that the fighting parties achieve an agreement in their peace negotiations even when this possibly could be wishful thinking. Switzerland will unfortunately no longer be seen as a country independent of both parties and as a neutral place of negotiation.
The visit has shown how awful too great a dependency on energy and food supply can be. Therefore, I am convinced that we in Switzerland as well must take care that the energy and food supply remain mostly independent.
Source: Grüter, Franz “diary” (Excerpt).Weltwoche of 24 March 2022
(Translation Current Concerns)
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