Who is afraid of neutrality?

by Pascal Lottaz*

There is no solid definition of Swiss neutrality in the Swiss Federal Constitution. The neutrality initiative demands the Federal Council to actively pursue its peace function. Our country would thereby regain scope. The 2022 launched neutrality initiative has been achieved. On 11 April the initiative committee submitted 133,000 signatures for the initiative. This sets the course for a referendum on a definition of neutrality in the Swiss constitution.

A neutrality enshrined in the constitution would create clarity for us – and for the abroad. Whether the Federal Council should, in a first phase draw up a counterproposal to the initiative or whether it favours a rejection without alternative is still up in the air at the moment. However, it can be assumed that it will not support the original wording of the initiative, as it restricts the competence of the Federal Council to freely interpret the concept of neutrality. In its reports on neutrality from 1993 and 2022 the Federal Council argued repeatedly that neutrality requires “flexibility so that it can adapt to the course of time” (2022, p. 8). The panel of magistrates will therefore have to decide whether it wants to propose a less strict definition of neutrality or whether it wants to adopt the “all or nothing” strategy of trying to sink the request at the ballot box.

From great powers for great powers

One way or another, the initiative will from now on force a debate about the definition of neutrality and its anchoring in the Swiss state structure. In particular our neutrality is currently mentioned by the constitution in two places in the Constitution (Art. 173, 85) but is not given any meaning there. In this respect Swiss neutrality differs from that of Austria, for example, where a Federal Constitutional Law of 1955 (BGBl. no. 211/1955) also describes the foreign policy maxim in more detail: “For the securing of this purpose in all future times Austria will not join any military alliances and will not permit the establishment of any foreign military bases on her territory”. Switzerland lacks such a “strict” definition at constitutional level.
  The Austrian example clearly shows that a definition in the constitution does not stand in the way of a flexible interpretation of foreign policy. For example, Austria 1955, despite a “strict” definition of neutrality immediately decided in favour of joining the UN (which Switzerland did not do until 2002) and joined the EU in 1995 – something that the conservatives in Switzerland often criticise as incompatible with neutrality.
  It is also sometimes argued that such a constitutional text is unnecessary because Swiss neutrality is based on the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, which is not wrong under international law, but overlooks an important point. The Hague Conventions define the rights and obligations of neutral states in times of war and apply to all states that decide not to join a war. The treaties do not contain any special clauses for “perpetually” neutral states such as Switzerland, which has made neutrality its foreign policy maxim. The Hague Conventions were primarily made by great powers for great powers, which in the 19th
 century were occasionally neutral (“situational neutrality”), but not as a fundamental principle. That is why seeking for instructions for perpetually neutral states during times of non-war in these agreements is futile.
  A definition of neutrality enshrined in the constitution for the specifically Swiss perpetual neutrality would create clarity for us – and for other countries, what can be expected of Switzerland. Moreover, in terms of domestic policy, it would only specify the minimum requirements for the organisation of our neutrality policy, not the precise details. This is also the case with the present initiative text, which is anything but radical.
  The present initiative text is a balanced approach to reconciling conservative and progressive values of Swiss foreign and security policy under one roof. The wording of the four proposed paragraphs:

  1. “Switzerland is neutral. Its neutrality is perpetual and armed.”
  2. “Switzerland does not join any military or defence alliance. An exception is made for cooperation with such alliances in the event of a direct military attack on Switzerland or in the case of actions in preparation for such an attack.”
  3. “Switzerland does not participate in military conflicts between third countries and does not take any non-military coercive measures against belligerent states. Exceptions are Switzerland’s obligations towards the United Nations (UN) and measures to prevent the circumvention of non-military coercive measures by other states.”
  4. “Switzerland uses its perpetual neutrality for the prevention and resolution of conflicts and is available as a mediator.”

Paragraphs one and four are the initiative’s balancing act of harmonising peace policy with military self-defence. While the wording would make a Switzerland without an army more difficult (but not impossible), it is at the same time an olive branch to pacifist-minded fellow citizens that Switzerland should actively pursue a peace function in the international system and understand its neutrality in this sense – and not as isolationism.
  Paragraph two mainly throws a lot of sand in the gears of the NATO turbos, who are working behind the scenes on a creeping accession (aptly christened “crypto-Atlanticists” by political scientists Filip Ejdus and Catherine Hoeffler). It would also be impossible for Switzerland to participate in a common EU defence structure, should one ever be designed. At the same time, however, the paragraph takes realistic political circumstances into account by not ruling out joint defence per se in the event of a direct attack on Switzerland. The Federal Council would therefore not have to impose emergency law in order to cooperate with one or other foreign power in the event of an attack. While this is certainly a gateway for crypto-Atlanticists to further expand Switzerland’s military ties through a back door, the paragraph is a compromise to keep options open for an uncertain future.

Reminders of the banking secrecy

The biggest change to the previous understanding of neutrality is in paragraph three, but here too with a great deal of reservation. On the one hand, it is stipulated that Switzerland will not only not participate directly (militarily) in the wars of third countries, but will also refrain from “non-military coercive measures” – i.e. sanctions – against one or other party to the conflict. On the other hand, two exceptions are proposed at the same time: UN sanctions, which are universal by nature, would continue to be supported by Switzerland, and secondly, the Swiss Confederation could continue to take “measures” to prevent other (friendly) states from circumventing sanctions. This exception is also important primarily for reasons of Realpolitik.
  It would be fatal if Switzerland were unable to support any sanctions imposed by third countries (the EU and the US), as both of these very important trading partners for Switzerland have the unpleasant habit of not only imposing primary sanctions on counterparties, but also threatening third countries or their institutions via secondary sanctions. If Switzerland were not to adopt certain sanctions imposed by the US and the EU itself and thereby help to circumvent these primary sanctions (even if only in the eyes of the US and the EU), Switzerland itself would be subject to sanctions that could damage the Swiss economy in the worst possible way. Let us not forget that banking secrecy was not lifted voluntarily by the Federal Council in 2009, but as a result of threats by the US to sanction UBS and Credit Suisse, which could have meant the downfall of both banks.
  UN sanctions, which are universal in nature, would continue to be supported by Switzerland. Admittedly, this is not a positive, sovereignty-based argument for sanctions. But as a non-self-sufficient, small landlocked country in the heart of Europe that depends on trade, you have to comply with certain dictates – especially if they come with the threat of force. The text of the initiative explicitly permits compliance. This means that, even if the initiative is accepted, Switzerland would not automatically have to reverse all sanctions imposed on Russia (and other states) if the proxy war in Ukraine and the NATO-Russia conflict have not ended by then.
  So, what is the point of this initiative text, you might legitimately ask. Well, its importance lies in the principle. The new article on neutrality would make it clear that Switzerland regards its neutrality in principle as a freedom of alliance and also wants it to be understood in principle in economic terms (which is sometimes also referred to as “integral neutrality”). However, this does not mean that Switzerland would not make exceptions or jeopardise its existence for these principles. The principle aims to reverse certain tendencies that have materialised in Swiss foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.

Measures against warring parties

Although sanctions would not be impossible per se, such a definition of neutrality would ensure that Switzerland does not (virtually) automatically adopt sanctions imposed by foreign countries, but acts under the more cautious – and sovereign – maxim that only the “most necessary” sanctions are taken, as was the case in 1998 and before.
  Furthermore, although the threat of secondary sanctions is not unusual, especially for the USA, it is nevertheless an unfriendly act, which the EU has refrained from doing until recently. It is therefore quite likely that there will be foreign sanctions in the future that will come without the threat of secondary sanctions and which Switzerland will not have to comply with in anticipatory obedience, but can reject with reference to this constitutional article. Switzerland would therefore gain more room for manoeuvre with this article – not lose it.
  It would also allow Switzerland to dispense with symbolic sanctions, such as the closure of Swiss airspace to Russian civil aviation. This measure is completely pointless, as Russian aircraft are obviously unable to pass through Swiss airspace without flying over the sanctioned EU airspace.
  Such measures against warring parties could be avoided in future – provided the EU does not threaten to impose secondary sanctions – in order to remain more credible in terms of neutrality policy than is currently the case.
  The constitutional article would also send a strong signal in the military field that the electorate is not in favour of the creeping integration of the Swiss defence system into the structures of NATO and the EU and wishes to distance itself from plans for collective military operations.

The constitutional article 
would also have a strong 
signalling effect in the military sector

It would be a counterweight to the Federal Council’s plans, which, at the latest since the supplementary report to the previous year’s security policy report published in 2022, have completely geared the federal security doctrine towards integration with NATO and the EU. “Cooperation” with both institutions, including ensuring “interoperability”, is currently at the centre of the Federal Council’s security thinking. This can be seen crystal clear, for example, in the decision to participate in the European Sky Shield project or in the constant political rapprochement with NATO. In 2023 for example, for the first time a female head of the DDPS (although the emphasis here is not on gender) not only visited the NATO headquarters, but also attended a meeting of its highest body, the North Atlantic Council.

Is it good to go with the flow?

In both military and economic terms, the text of the initiative is designed to act as a counterweight to these tendencies towards interdependence and to steer the ship of state away from the Swedish and Finnish course, which consists of first operationally undermining neutrality in order to throw it completely overboard when the time comes (if a sufficiently large external shock occurs).
  Even before it came into being, the neutrality initiative was criticised in many ways. It was often portrayed in the media as a right-wing Blocher initiative, even though the independent initiative committee also included left-wing representatives and various SP representatives, trade unionists and the Communist Party were firmly behind the initiative.
  Of course, opponents of neutrality have also been active in the last two years – from crude statements such as neutrality being an “identity-creating lie” (publicist Roger de Weck) to the claim that the desire for integral neutrality, which also does not support sanctions, represents implicit “support or explicit partisanship for aggressive states” (historian Jakob Tanner).
  These disputes will intensify over the coming years, and sooner or later we will have to ask ourselves why Switzerland sanctions Russia after its attack on Ukraine, but not the USA after its attack on Iraq (2003) or the current bombing of Yemen, which violates international law, or Israel because of its bombing and occupation of Palestinian territories. Is it a good thing for a neutral state to take sides economically and morally in cases where it is easy to go with the flow, but to pursue a completely different foreign policy at other times? Or do we want to pursue foreign policy principles that are at least in principle compatible with equal treatment of all warring parties?
  There is much to discuss.  •

First published in Die Weltwoche of 17 April 2024.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author and the publisher Weltwoche.

* Pascal Lottaz is Associate Professor of Neutrality Studies at the Faculty of Law of the University of Kyoto (Japan). He is from the canton of Fribourg and is a member of the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland. The German version of this article was published in Zeit-Fragen Nr. 10 of 14 May 2024, https://www.zeit-fragen.ch/archiv/2024/nr-10-14-mai-2024/wer-hat-angst-vor-der-neutralitaet, and translated by Current Concerns.

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