Ukraine sanctions: Federal Council under massive pressure from within and without

Neutrality policy is not a drop-down menu!

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

We Swiss would do well to stick to the tried and tested pillars of our state model, even in the current political climate. One of these pillars is our perpetual armed neutrality, the great importance of which Tobias Salander describes for us in historical context (see p. 4 of this journal). Although this neutrality is still deeply rooted in the people today, the majority of the Federal Council and Parliament are unfortunately not turning out to be storm-proof at present. In order not to falter, however, a certain amount of steadfastness would be needed.

Mainstream journalists set the pace

22 February, Tagesschau SRF (Swiss radio and television, news): Switzerland condemns Russia’s actions, but “is not putting in place any sanctions for the time being”, says State Secretary Livia Leu.
  25 February, media conference in the Federal Palace: Federal President Ignazio Cassis appeared before the media, visibly tense, and explained that although the Federal Council was tightening “individual measures” against Russia, he nevertheless did not want to adopt all the EU’s sanctions as such because he wanted to keep open the possibility of dialogue.1 On SRF News the same day, the Federal President explained his position: “Switzerland has never adopted sanctions automatically, otherwise it would not remain true to its neutrality.” And further: “It is enormously important that our country, as a neutral and independent country, still has the chance to offer a dialogue.”2 Now, whatever is wrong with that?
  Meanwhile, at the media conference with the heads of office and diplomats of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), journalists set the pace. Will Switzerland fully accept the EU sanctions or to what extent will it not do so? Finally, one of them claimed that “the Russian invasion is the most blatant violation of international law in decades” (I can think of a few more blatant ones!)  and wanted to know “why, in view of this fact, Switzerland was not adopting the sanctions of the USA and the EU to their full extent”. State Secretary Livia Leu was the only person to bravely get up and answer: “We are a neutral country, as you know. Switzerland traditionally offers its good offices and can hardly fulfil this role if we get too close to the positions of individual sides. In the end, a conflict is never resolved militarily, but always through dialogue.” But the gutter press has set the emotional tone.

Undue interference from Brussels and Washington

On the same day (25 February), one could read in the media (for example, the newspaper “Tages-Anzeiger”): “Sanctions against Russia. EU and USA are putting pressure on Switzerland. – It is getting uncomfortable for the Federal Council: the EU and the USA are making it clear that they do not approve of leniency towards Russia. Many people in Switzerland are also calling for a change of course.”
  Since when has the policy for free and sovereign Switzerland to pursue been determined abroad? A little more independence and dignity would befit also our press.

Political Institutions Committee of the National Council goes the extra mile

Also on 25 February, the National Council’s Political Institutions Committee (PIC-N) had its say. (Actually, the Foreign Affairs Committee would be responsible, but of late this has had a firm and steady president in the person of Franz Grüter). By 16 votes to 6 with 2 abstentions, this committee “condemns the war of aggression against Ukraine in the strongest possible terms and proposes that its Council adopt a declaration calling, among other things, for an immediate ceasefire between the parties to the conflict”. It also called on the Federal Council to “ensure that Switzerland joins the European Union’s sanctions against Russia”. The committee minority, on the other hand, “advocates strict neutrality and requests that the National Council refrain from making a statement” – but there was no getting through.3
 
The motion was “spontaneously” put on the agenda for the National Council on the first day of its session (28 February) and adopted with 147 ayes to 41 nays and 8 abstentions. In vain, Lukas Reimann filed the following motion: “Referral of the matter back to the committee with the mandate to submit a draft that would enable Switzerland to decide on sanctions on its own and independently of EU decisions.” The motion was rejected by 140 votes to 54. (see box “Political Institutions Committee of the National Council Statement of 25 February 2022 is contrary to the principle of neutrality”).

Federal Council struggles to reach a decision

The Swiss Federal Council is a collegial body. The seven members discuss pending issues internally and then present the result of their discussion – often a compromise – to the public. However, it happens from time to time that individual Federal Councillors make their own opinions known. The Federal Councillors Karin Keller-Sutter and Ueli Maurer have recently done so. Karin Keller-Sutter on 27 February in Brussels (where she attended the conference of EU Justice and Internal Affairs Ministers and pledged Switzerland’s support for humanitarian aid and the reception of refugees): “I can tell you that I personally support the tightening of measures against Russia. But I cannot tell you what decision the Federal Council will take tomorrow at its meeting.”4
  Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer approached the matter in quite a different way. In an interview on 24 February, he posed the question “if the conflict should now be defused or exacerbated by sanctions”: “As a neutral small state, Switzerland can certainly contribute to de-escalation – whensoever – so that must also be our goal. Because it is not about Mr Putin, it is about the Russian people, it is about the Ukrainian people, it is about Europe. And somehow, we have to try to live together in peace and make sure that the economy goes well, that people have an income and feel safe. And this is where Switzerland not only can, but must find a role in the coming days, months and years to bring things back to normal.5
  Unfortunately, Maurer’s view did not prevail in the Federal Council. It is sufficient to read the title of the Federal Council’s media release of 28 February: “Switzerland adopts EU sanctions against Russia”. Even foreign editors notice the absurdity: “Neutral, but against Putin” was the headline of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” on the same day. In return, Ms von der Leyen and Mr Borrell are clapping us on the back.

Let us not allow EU turbos and transatlanticists to run rings around us!

Anyone who thinks that the Swiss connection to the great powers’ sanctions has anything to do with charity or compassion is mistaken. Rather, spin-doctors are grabbing people by their compassionate sensibilities and leading them down a wrong path. Who can be blamed for being touched by the fate of the Ukrainian people? But what about the numerous victims in the Donbass, where people have been killed and houses shot to pieces for eight years now? Who remembers their plight and provides them with humanitarian aid?
  The real goals of the supposedly only superpower lie elsewhere. As far as Switzerland is concerned, the current course of events could also be a pilot test for the next attempt to make us join the EU. If the enforcement of EU sanctions in Bern (despite the flagrant breach of neutrality!) works so well, perhaps one might also get the hang of making the Swiss people adopt EU law and judgements, by somehow peddling them the line of the renunciation of direct democracy and federalism? Let us be on our guard at Morgarten or in Federal Bern or when consuming our daily newspapers and the radio and television news!



The Swiss Federal Council. European policy with Federal president Ignazio Cassis, head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), of 25 February 2022 (YouTube)
Vincenz, Gion-Duri. “EU-Politik und Ukraine-Krieg. Cassis: ‘Die Schweiz hat Sanktionen nie automatisch übernommen’” (EU policy and war in the Ukraine. Cassis: “Switzerland has never automatically adopted sanctions”). SRF News of 25 February 2022
Motion of the National Council’s Political Institutions Committee of 25 February 2022 pursuant to Art. 32 of the Standing Orders of the National Council. Draft declaration (22.023)
Extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council, Brussels, of 27 February 2022. Doorstep (in German and in French) by Karin Keller-Sutter, Swiss Federal Councillor and Head of the Swiss Federal Department of Justice and Police.
Gredig, Urs. Interview with Ueli Maurer. In: Gredig direkt. Play SRF of 24 February 2022

14 March in the Council of States Once again: Neutral Switzerland has no business in the UN Security Council

mw. In the Council of States, a final proposal to prevent Switzerland from running for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2023/24 is on the agenda of 14 March.
    According to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, “the Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” (Art. 39). According to Art. 41, it can decide that measures including “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations” are to be employed against a country. As a last resort, the Security Council is authorised to order military measures in accordance with Art. 42.
    Especially at the present moment, it should be obvious to every Swiss citizen that our country, as the seat of the ICRC and as the depositary state of the Geneva Conventions, has completely different tasks to fulfil in the world than to judge other states and to sanction them by economic or even military means. Or should Switzerland continue on the inglorious path it entered with the recent adoption of the EU sanctions against Russia as they stand? What country, what people would then still turn to Switzerland in search of a neutral, safe place or of a trustworthy mediator for difficult negotiations?
   Anyone carefully weighing this question can only come to the one conclusion: The UN Security Council is no place for neutral Switzerland.

 

 

Political Institutions Committee of the National Council Statement of 25 February 2022 is contrary to the principle of neutrality

mw. It is extremely unusual for a committee motion to be proposed, put on the agenda and dealt with within three days. As there was no time for that discussion among the citizens which we are used to, I wrote a short statement on Sunday (27 February) and sent it by e-mail to the 200 members of the National Council. Before and after the debate, I received thirteen replies – not all of them agreed with me, but all of them thanked me politely, gratefully and approvingly.

My email (text):

“The statement issued by your Political Institutions Committee strongly condemns the Russian political and military leadership’s war of aggression against Ukraine, which is contrary to international law.
    I ask you to reject this declaration because it contradicts the requirement of Switzerland’s permanent neutrality.
    Of course, every Swiss is free to personally take sides in any of the numerous conflicts and terrible wars in this world and to actively support one side or the other. Many of us do so.
    However, Switzerland, as the seat of the ICRC and as the depositary state of the Geneva Conventions, is committed to neutrality – a neutrality that applies perpetually and with regard to every foreign state. A unilateral approach during an armed conflict and a quasi-automatic acceptance of sanctions imposed by other states would be blatant violations of the neutrality requirement. For the same reason, Switzerland should not sit on the UN Security Council: Would it take sides in the current case? Or would it abstain from voting? That would not be a dignified solution, either.
    More than 90 per cent of the Swiss citizens regularly speak out in favour of maintaining neutrality – for good reason. It is no coincidence that Ukrainian president Zelensky approached the president of neutral Switzerland yesterday (26 February) with a request to organise a peace conference in order to achieve a ceasefire. A first contact will be possible at the UN Human Rights Council meeting next Monday/Tuesday in Geneva. Both the American Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, will be present there.
    As you know, Switzerland’s neutrality status makes it possible to offer good offices of this kind. This is so easy to say, but it usually does not bring quick successes; in practice, it requires a lot of patience and small steps. Often it is just a matter of offering a meeting place on neutral ground. As a neutral small state, Switzerland is particularly well suited for these unspectacular but universally appreciated activities. It should not deviate from this path.
    Once again, I ask you to refrain from the unilateral declaration proposed by your PIC and to support the Federal Council in its efforts to find an independent path for neutral Switzerland.
    For the coming session, I wish you all the best and much success.”

Some responses:

  • FDP National Councillor: “Bonjour! Je vous remercie pour votre message qui a retenu toute mon attention. (Good afternoon! I thank you for your message, which strongly arrested my attention.)”
  • SVP National Councillor: “Besten Dank für Ihre Mail. Ich bin ganz Ihrer Meinung. Leider sind wir im NR unterlegen. Wahrscheinlich ist sich kaum ein Parlamentarier der Tragweite der Auswirkungen bewusst. Wir bleiben dran und kämpfen weiter. (Thank you very much for your email. I am completely of your opinion. Unfortunately, we are outnumbered in the NC. Probably hardly any of the parliamentarians are aware of the implications. We will stay on the ball and keep fighting.”
  • SP National Councillor:  “Danke für Ihre Nachricht, welche ich mit Interesse gelesen habe, auch wenn ich wohl nicht 100 % einig bin mit Ihnen. Ich schätze solche Überlegungen sehr. Ich wünsche Ihnen alles Gute (Thank you for your message, which I read with interest, even though I probably don’t agree with you 100%. I appreciate such reflections very much. I wish you all the best!)”
  • SVP National Councillor: “Vielen Dank für Ihre Nachricht. Ich bin völlig mit Ihnen einverstanden, dass durch die Erklärung die Neutralität verletzt wird. Mein Kollege Lukas Reimann stellte einen Antrag, um zu versuchen, die Erklärung mit der Neutralitätspolitik in Einklang zu bringen. Der Antrag wurde abgelehnt, und deshalb habe ich mich gegen die Erklärung ausgesprochen und nein gestimmt. (Thank you very much for your message. I completely agree with you that neutrality is violated by the statement. My colleague Lukas Reimann made a motion to try to bring the declaration in line with the neutrality policy. His motion was rejected and that is why I spoke against the declaration and voted no.)”

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