Neutral Switzerland has quite different options than the adoption of foreign sanctions

by Dr rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich

Was it really wise for neutral Switzerland to adopt the EU's sanctions, which are unusual in their extent, on a 1:1 basis and thus participate in the economic war against Russia? Switzerland is on Russia's list of hostile states – this after both warring parties had previously requested Switzerland and asked for mediation. Today they are negotiating on the border with Belarus (quite improvised) and in Turkey – and not in Geneva. With its current policy, Switzerland has recklessly abandoned the tried and tested path of neutrality.

In the following lines, I will use a concrete example to show how neutral Switzerland successfully used the Good Offices in an equally difficult and dangerous war situation, thereby strengthening its position in the international community. No one said that Switzerland wanted to use neutrality only to enforce its own selfish interests. This feat was achieved in the Algerian War, which ended in a genuine and lasting peace after eight years with Switzerland's help in Evian.

Algerian War (1954–1962)

Algeria was the largest and oldest French colony formally considered part of France. More than one million French settlers had settled here. In 1954, the war of independence began. The Algerian Front de Libération Nationale FLN was supported from Tunisia and Morocco, both of which had already become independent. France had about half a million soldiers permanently in wartime action in Algeria – similar to the USA in Vietnam a few years later. By 1962, a total of about 1.7 million army personnel were fighting there – in addition to the professional military and the Foreign Legion also many conscripts. This great war was controversial – especially in France itself.
  In December 1958, General Charles de Gaulle was elected Prime Minister for the second time and President of the Republic in 1959 because he wanted to end the war and release Algeria into independence. On 8 January 1961, de Gaulle called a referendum. 75 percent of those who voted in France supported his policy. However, with the vote the goal was not yet achieved. Only a few days later, on 20 January, the opposition founded the Organisation de l'Armée Secrète (OAS) in Madrid, which included many French settlers who had trouble imagining that one day they would no longer wake up in the French department of Algérie, but in independent Algeria. Senior officers in the French army also sympathised with the OAS. The OAS included an underground organisation that carried out attacks to disrupt the peace process. On 21 April 1961, the OAS led a coup in Algiers involving four generals of the French army who opposed Algerian independence and de Gaulle's peace policy. Indeed, the coup failed, but the situation remained highly dangerous. Genuine peace negotiations were hardly possible.

Hope in Switzerland’s Good Offices

De Gaulle and the FLN turned to Switzerland in this difficult situation with the request to help with its Good Offices. The first step was to organise direct face-to-face talks. The talks took place – in view of the dangerous situation under the utmost secrecy. Today, the reports on them can be viewed with all the details at dodis.ch (dodis.ch/9709 and /10392; /10413 and /10389; /10307 and /10398. Dodis.ch is the information portal of the Federal Archives).
  The fifty-page report by Minister Olivier Long is particularly noteworthy: two employees of the Political Department of the Confederation (now the Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA), Olivier Long and Gianrico Bucher, had prepared and organised the meetings with the utmost discretion. For the time being, the adversaries were to meet in an unofficial, private setting in Lucerne. De Gaulle appointed Georges Pompidou (later President of the Republic), a close confidant, to lead the negotiations.  The talks took place at the Hotel Schweizerhof. Algerians and French met after the morning meal, spent the whole day together and discussed until deep into the night. Long and Bucher sat in the next room and made sure that nothing conspicuous leaked out that could cause the OAS using force to disrupt the ongoing peace negotiations. However, Long and Bucher considered the situation so dangerous that they moved the talks to Neuchâtel after a few days.
  After the second round of talks, the concept for the official peace negotiations was fixed: they were to take place in Evian – on the French side of Lake Geneva. The first phase of negotiations – which was also still secret – was about a ceasefire. The official peace negotiations were only to begin when the weapons in Algeria were silent. Only then were the media to be involved – a highly demanding undertaking.

General Staff Preparation for the Peace Negotiation

A lot was at stake, and everything had to work. For understandable reasons, the Algerian negotiating delegation did not want to live on French soil. They were accommodated on the Swiss side of the lake and brought across Lake Geneva every day by military helicopters or, in bad weather, by speedboats. But even on the Swiss side, the Algerians did not feel safe. The army deployed a battalion of soldiers to protect them. The Algerians furthermore changed their place of residence every day, also to be protected from the media. The costs of this large-scale operation, which was organised on a general staff basis, were borne entirely by the Swiss Confederation. The Evian Conference was a success and ended with the Evian Peace Agreement. Algeria was released into independence. Bucher and Long wrote a report for the attention of the Department (which can be read today at dodis.ch). In retrospect, it became clear that the extremely cautious and highly professional work of the two employees of the Political Department was appropriate to the situation.

Success of the Good Offices

Switzerland’s neutral stance had helped to end one of the most brutal wars of modern times, and it had made genuine peace possible. This would not have been possible without maintaining strict neutrality. The quick conclusion of peace removed the ground politically from the illegal OAS, so that it was possible to reduce tensions even in divided France. However, not quite – only weeks after the peace agreement, assassins’ bullets pierced Charles de Gaulle’s limousine, narrowly missing him.

Effects of the Peace of Evian on Switzerland

Only weeks later, President Friedrich Traugott Wahlen received an invitation from the Elysée. General De Gaulle thanked Switzerland for its beneficial services – Wahlen took the opportunity to present the French President with the main problem that was preoccupying him and the entire Federal Council at the time. The USA was urging Switzerland to conclude an association treaty with the EEC, which would also integrate the country institutionally into the EEC – very similar to the failed framework treaty. In this way, Europe could speak with one voice, the Americans argued. De Gaulle addressed Switzerland's concerns. His words are well known today because Wahlen wrote a transcript of the speech, which can be accessed today at dodis.ch/30270:
  Wahlen: “Another reason that prevents us from joining the European Community [...] is the constitutional problems. In our referendum democracy, we cannot cede powers to another Community which are reserved for the people, who are the sovereign in the full sense of the word.” De Gaulle replied: “France understands your desire for a form of understanding with the European Community which will not be easy to find. But you may rest assured that no difficulties will be placed in your way by France.” 
  Switzerland had won a friend on this important issue, who was to pave the ground for the forthcoming free trade agreement with the European Community. In the following years, Switzerland (and the other EFTA countries) reduced their tariffs in step with the EEC, thus preparing the ground for the envisaged free trade treaty, which was to lead to a kind of free trade area between the countries of the EEC and EFTA. After the negotiations were successfully concluded, the treaty was signed in Brussels on 22 July 1972. The then President of the Confederation, Brugger, gave a speech on the occasion of the signing. He began with the words:
  “The Agreement between Switzerland and the European Communities, which I have the honour to sign today on behalf of the Federal Council, represents a decisive step in our traditional endeavour to cooperate in the integration of our continent, insofar as we are able to do so while respecting direct democracy, parliamentary powers and neutral foreign policy.” (dodis.ch/36209)
  De Gaulle had politically paved the way for the free trade treaty, which the negotiating delegation in Brussels drew up – as Switzerland had wished without a political superstructure, i.e. without institutional integration. On 3 December 1972, the Swiss people with 72 percent of the votes and all cantons approved the treaty. A “European issue” was never again to achieve such a high level of approval. The treaty was a success, and in the following decades it was repeatedly adapted with over 100 additional treaties. It is still valid today and has contributed significantly to the prosperity that not only we Swiss enjoy today. In a few months – on 22 July – it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the conclusion of the treaty. It will be interesting to see how the Swiss government honours the Free Trade Agreement. In my view, it is one of the most important economic treaties or the most important economic treaty in the history of the modern Swiss Confederation.

And today?

Neutrality is more than a special feature of Switzerland. It is a state policy doctrine (Edgar Bonjour) that permeates all politics. With its current policy, our national government has by far not fully realised the potential of the Good Services. It has wasted a unique opportunity to contribute – possibly – to world peace. In a very special situation, it could have taken on a task for which no one else is better equipped.  The world needs a neutral Switzerland!  •



For the background with further details, cf. Wüthrich, Werner. Wirtschaft und direkte Demokratie in der Schweiz. Geschichte der freiheitlich-demokratischen Wirtschaftsverfassung der Schweiz (Economy and Direct Democracy in Switzerland. History of the liberal-democratic economic constitution of Switzerland), Zurich 2020; pp. 293-317

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