“Neutrality is much more deeply anchored in the population than is readily admitted in Bern”

Interview with National Councillor Franz Grüter*

Current Concerns: The Swiss Armed Forces recently published a new report entitled “Strengthening Defence Capability”. To my mind, two questions emerged. Firstly, have our military personnel become queasy because the army has been run down to a level that is not suitable for national defence? Secondly, are those people who want to join NATO using the war in Ukraine to finally bring Switzerland closer to NATO?
Franz Grüter
: Both theories are probably true. Concerning the first question: In the last 20, probably even almost 30 years, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there were many politicians from almost all parties who said: There will never be another war in Europe. The Social Democrats were still saying this at the beginning of the 2000s: we will never again need tanks, we will never again need planes. Today, for the first time in 75 years, we have a war in Europe. This has opened the eyes of many, and people in the army have also – fortunately – slowly become aware of the fact that the Swiss army would no longer be able to guarantee the security of the population if Switzerland were really attacked.

There was a war in Europe before that, the Yugoslavian war.
There was indeed a war in Yugoslavia, but it was never perceived in as emotional a way. It did have major consequences for Switzerland in terms of immigration, but it did not stir people up as much as the war in Ukraine has done, which has a completely different dimension.

On the current state
of the Swiss Armed Forces

Corps Commander Süssli [head of the armed forces] once spoke of four weeks’ staying power, which is of course equal to nothing. The mobilisation of troops has also ceased to function. In this respect, I think it is positive that people now do realise that there is a need for action. Adolf Ogi [former Federal Councillor and head of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport DDPS] said at the time that there would be ten years’ warning in case of a war. These are and were illusory considerations, and I am pleased that the priorities are being set in a different direction, namely that the armed forces must once again be able to guarantee the security of our population and thus maintain defence capability.

No closer affiliation with NATO

The Swiss Armed Forces have always procured their armaments in the West and have also made sure that these are compatible with Western goods. In the past, we bought the US Tigers, the FA-18s; they were always Western fighter jets. Today we are re-equipping the air force with the F-35, and we are getting a state-of-the-art surface-to-air defence system (Bodluv), the US Patriot missiles. We have always been mindful of the so-called interoperability, as we call it so nicely in German Newspeak. But many politicians in Bern want to join NATO even more closely than this. That is, of course, unacceptable. Because we would only be allowed to join forces with other states if Switzerland itself were attacked. Apart from that, Swiss neutrality does not permit such a rapprochement.

In June, the Council of States approved the postulate submitted by its member Josef Dittli. This demands that the Federal Council “present in a report how – without joining an alliance and while preserving the right of neutrality – a deeper, institutionalised cooperation in the field of defence with NATO can be achieved”. The Council of States agreed to this. Would that not be practically equivalent to joining NATO?
Well, this is a postulate, which means that the Council of States first of all demands a report from the Federal Council [in contrast to a motion, which directly demands a draft law]. But the direction in which they want to go is clear. It is also dishonest to the population to say: after all, we do not want to join NATO. Because everyone knows very well that according to our constitution, this would not be possible in any case. A referendum would be needed for the accession to NATO.
  On the one hand, it is good when our people realise that we are no longer able to defend the country and guarantee the security of our own population with our own army, both in terms of equipment and training. But the demand should be a different one, namely: What does the army need? And this is what I would expect precisely of a member of the Council of States like Josef Dittli: he is a former instruction officer of the Swiss army, a colonel in the general staff, a man who understands things about the army. I think very highly of him in other respects. But his question should be: Where are the biggest gaps? What do we need to bring the Swiss Armed Forces to the level where we can secure our country ourselves? We have to face this honest discussion. The focus must be on our ability to defend ourselves, and not on joining any alliances just because we are no longer prepared to accomplish the tasks that face us at home. That would be a cheap way of shirking responsibility.

Ensuring our neutrality

This is also about ensuring our neutrality. This brings us to foreign policy, i. e., the tasks of my Commission. For a small state, defence capability is an important instrument. But it is just as important that we act as a neutral small state, that we do not interfere in foreign conflicts. On the contrary, we should try to mediate and offer our good offices. The readiness to do this is precisely what has been diminished in recent times, because we have virtually taken sides. Being neutral during a war is of course much more uncomfortable, much harder, it takes much more backbone and much more strength. To say in a war, we are steering clear, we do not condemn anyone, even if inwardly you would probably like to do this – by the way, everyone is allowed to do it in private – but the state itself is not allowed to do that, it has to remain neutral. That is why these questions have also moved back into the focus of politics.

It would be good if more Swiss politicians gave our neutrality the weight it deserves, like you do. But the new army report goes in a completely different direction. It wants cooperation with NATO to be “further expanded and intensified in the coming years”. What does that mean in concrete terms?
Obviously, it all started in 1996 with the “Partnership for Peace” and since then, Switzerland has been working more and more together with NATO. Today we participate in joint exercises in cyber defence, and the air force trains abroad. But if we want to participate in military exercises of ground forces, if we want to purchase armaments jointly with Germany and Austria and, according to Swiss Federal Councillor Amherd, should participate in the so-called “Sky Shield”, then it is dishonest to say: we are doing almost everything, but we are not involved. We have to counter that: red lines must be drawn here.

I do not think this is
what the Swiss people want

On 30 August, Federal Councillor Viola Amherd said in the “Tages-Anzeiger” that she wanted Switzerland also to take part in NATO ground troops exercises. Of course, everything would have to be “in conformity with the law of neutrality”. The interviewer asked: “Can Switzerland now practise the alliance case with NATO?” Viola Amherd’s answer was: “The alliance case is a bit much. But in future we can participate in defence exercises. We must simply not commit ourselves to collective defence.”
Yes, this is exactly the dishonesty I was referring to. When NATO carries out big manoeuvres, the troops are effectively practising the alliance case. If one of the NATO countries is attacked, the alliance automatically comes into effect. This means that the defence alliance obliges each member state to provide troops and to join in the fight, i.e., to become involved in an act of war. If the Swiss army participates in exercises where the case of alliance is practised, then it is simply dishonest to say: “We are not a member of NATO, we will not participate anyhow.”
  I do not think this is what the Swiss people want. We have to show clearly what it would mean. Incidentally, I do not rule out the possibility that such an alliance case could actually occur one day. If Switzerland were to join, it would have to send soldiers to war zones, and that is definitely not possible according to our Federal Constitution. Fortunately, it would require a referendum, and I am sure that it is not what the Swiss would want. I have great confidence in our people. Neutrality is much more deeply rooted in the population than is readily admitted in Bern. Things are not going in the right direction in Bern.

Thank you very much for the interview, National Councillor Grüter.  •

*  Franz Grüter is president of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council (FAC-N), IT-Enterpriser and Captain of (the) Swiss Army.

    Armed foreign missions by Swiss Armed forces are in contradiction to Swiss neutrality

    mw. On 10 June 2001, the Swiss people very narrowly, with only 51% votes in favour, approved an amendment to the Military Act, which allowed Swiss soldiers to carry weapons on missions abroad. Various citizens’ groups had filed a referendum, and I still remember the discussions launched when I was collecting signatures. The Federal Council’s main argument was that armed Swiss should only be allowed to take part in “peace keeping” but not in “peace enforcement” missions. Obviously, the population’s critical questions as to what exactly the difference was could not and cannot be answered in situations of crisis and violence.
      In the preliminary talk to the interview, National Councillor Franz Grüter confirms this from his own experience: “What certainly needs to be addressed once again is the deployment of our soldiers abroad. We have around 200 people in Kosovo, the deployment was recently extended by parliament. I was in Kosovo myself before Christmas 2022. There was a lot of unrest in the north, roadblocks, all the Serbian police had resigned, and I saw for myself how the Swiss, who were supposed to be effecting peace keeping, suddenly became involved in peace enforcement, so to speak, i. e. in the forcible implementation of peace. This shows how quickly it can happen, when we have troops abroad who should be keeping the peace, that things can tip over very quickly and become an armed conflict.”
      Franz Grüter continues: “A fact also flying completely under the radar is that we still have about 20 people in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and we would also have to ask ourselves once again what they are doing there. It is worth taking a close look and asking critical questions over and over, for example, whether such deployments are altogether in line with our constitution.” This question was answered clearly 20 years ago by the journalist Philippe Kropf on Swiss television1: “For the first time, members of the armed forces are going on a peace mission to Kosovo with their weapons. In doing so, they are breaking a Swiss principle. The 7th Swisscoy contingent is a model case for all further foreign missions.” He continued, “The idea of Swiss soldiers carrying weapons abroad has been completely unthinkable until today because of Swiss neutrality. Swiss citizens participated in multinational operations only as UN military observers, as medical personnel on UN missions or as Yellow Hats for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).” Bravo!

    1 Kropf, Philippe. “Schweizer Soldaten bewaffnet im Ausland (Swiss soldiers armed abroad), swissinfo of 2 October 2002; emphasis mw

    “Our militia army is part of our state model. It has to protect the country and the people and has to guarantee our neutrality”

    Replies to the Army report from August 2023

    mw. The Swiss Army has published a report in August of 2023, the title being “Strengthening the defensive ability – sight picture and strategy for growth”.1 Since the 1990’s, the Swiss Army has been boiled down to a state where it is neither capable of protecting the population nor of defending the sovereignty and neutrality of the country. These days, those defensive abilities shall be re-established as part of the general arming of the EU and NATO states – which is allegedly not possible without an even closer binding of Switzerland to the NATO. This claim is nothing new, but continues to lead to misconceptions.
      Without going into too much detail: It is absurd when the current army report specifies all necessary measures to somehow capacitate the insufficient manpower, education and gear as well as the mainly trashed or sold infrastructure of the army – which had been pushed through by the federal authorities and army leaders themselves willingly and knowingly – under heavy time and money expenditures.
      20 years ago, various groups of citizens took the referendum against the “Army XXI” to avoid the unconstitutional deconstruction of the Swiss Defence Army and to stop the non-neutral alignment with the NATO which had been already initialised back then. Sadly, the Army XXI was accepted by the people on 18 May 2003.
      In reality, the claim back then that a later “Aufwuchs” (growth) to the needed number of well-trained and motivated soldiers was possible in a couple of years was unrealistic from the get-go. The vision of the authors of this years’ army report, that the military education needs to “accommodate the demands of the army members who are used to competence-oriented lessons from their civil education even more than today” (report p. 37ff.), sounds downright grotesque. A reliable defence of the country can neither be organised with the failed methods of the “Curriculum 21” nor with NATO compatible weapons or communicative networking with NATO bureaucracy. Instead, this has to be carried out by us, the citizens, knowing what we want to protect and preserve in Switzerland. Focussing on raising a youth who gets a clear vision on Swiss history and federal structures, who identifies itself with its country and is willing to commit to it is an urgent task in particular – as a soldier in the military, in the local community and wherever a helping hand is needed.

    1 Swiss Army. Group Defense. “Die Verteidigungsfähigkeit stärken. Zielbild und Strategie für den Aufwuchs” (Strengthening the defence capability. Vision and strategy for growth) from 11 August 2023. PDF, 60 pages

    From the arguments of the referendum committee against Army XXI in 2003

    “Our militia is part of our state model. It has to protect the country and the people and has to guarantee our neutrality. Therefore, it has to be free of alliances. Active freedom policy is only possible that way. Switzerland has to be able – nowadays, where war is not “ultima ratio” anymore – to exercise its freedom supporting task reliably: That means to invite to negotiations and peace conferences on neutral grounds, contribute to de-escalating conflicts with good services and to preserve faith in neutral humanitarian aid. The new military law and the Army XXI are standing in contradiction to all this. They are products of a fateful foreign-policy development. Federal Councillor Cotti (FDFA) signed a work of contracts with the NATO in 1996 which comprises of entering the military “Partnership for Peace, PfP” as well as the “Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council EAPC”.”

    (Voting booklet, p. 7)

    “Switzerland should defend its neutrality tooth and nail”

    Roger Köppel: What does the experienced general and NATO expert with historical awareness and the view of diversity say? Must Switzerland cultivate neutrality, or must it give it up? Should Switzerland draw closer to NATO in this uncomfortably worsening situation?
    Harald Kujat: I say this also as a former chairman of the NATO Military Committee. Switzerland has a history of achieving security through its neutrality. A future for Switzerland in security and freedom means preserving neutrality tooth and nail. Because if you accept what I have just said, and Switzerland joins the Western bloc, then Switzerland – according to the old saying “in for a penny, in for a pound” – is part of this confrontation. And that is a situation that could become very uncomfortable for Switzerland. I am in favour of dissolving these blocs, not reinforcing them. That we dissolve them, that we actually come to a multipolar world in which each state has a place that guarantees it security and freedom, but not this connection to another state that pursues other interests and other goals. Switzerland has its own goals, its own interests, and it must preserve them. It must not make itself the executor of the interests of other nations.

    Source: Köppel, Roger. “Nato General Kujat: ‘Switzerland should defend its neutrality tooth and nail’”.
    Interview with retired General Harald Kujat, former Inspector General of the German Armed Forces.
    (Excerpt) Weltwoche daily of 6 September 2023

    Our website uses cookies so that we can continually improve the page and provide you with an optimized visitor experience. If you continue reading this website, you agree to the use of cookies. Further information regarding cookies can be found in the data protection note.

    If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.​​​​​​​