Neutrality, Thomas Borer will tell you, is as engrained in Swiss national consciousness as milk chocolate, expensive watches, and Alpine cheese. And he should know: 30 years ago, the former Swiss diplomat led the development of the country’s world-famous policy of official neutrality.
Now, he’s calling for that policy to be scrapped.
“It’s a national myth, as the Swiss historian Edgar Bonjour said, of almost religious consecration,” Borer says of neutrality. But it was never envisaged to be neither religion in Switzerland, nor the end goal of its foreign policy. Rather, it was designed to be a tool to defend Swiss national interests. As Borer sees it, it no longer does.
Switzerland has been neutral for more than 500 years—a status that was formally recognized at the Congress of Vienna, where Europe’s great powers met to hash out a new political order in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815. Though its application hasn’t always been perfect (Switzerland made millions in arms sales to Nazi Germany during World War II and shut its borders to thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the country), it nonetheless remains a cornerstone of Swiss foreign policy, albeit with some modern alterations. In the early 1990s, Borer penned a white paper setting out the parameters of the country’s current neutrality policy, including provisions allowing for Switzerland to participate in collective sanctions against countries that violate international law (which it has) and join the European Union (which it has not).
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Borer, who now runs a consultancy in Zurich, tells TIME that Swiss neutrality has fulfilled a number of key functions over the years. First and foremost, it provided the country with a degree of geopolitical stability by ensuring that it couldn’t be drawn into neighboring conflicts. (Neutrality does not equal pacifism, however. Switzerland’s unaligned status is enforced by both an army and air force.) By preserving neutrality, the logic went, Switzerland would not only maintain its internal cohesion (the country is made up of 26 cantons, which are divided along linguistic, cultural, and denominational lines), but it would also afford it credibility as a neutral arbiter that could mediate disputes between other feuding states.
All of these factors had their purpose for a time, says Borer—but no longer. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, setting off the largest-scale land war in Europe since World War II, no country was insulated from its impact. Within months of the war starting, longtime neutral countries Finland and Sweden announced their intentions to join NATO. Switzerland, like many other Western democracies, adopted E.U. sanctions against Russia.
But many, including Borer, believe that Switzerland ought to go further—specifically, by easing its rules around arms deliveries. Under its current laws, Switzerland cannot directly deliver weapons to countries at war; any re-export of Swiss-made arms by third countries requires permission from Bern. Despite re-export requests from Germany, Spain, and Denmark, no such permission has been forthcoming. In March, the Swiss government ruled out allowing other countries to send their stockpiles of Swiss-made ammunition to Ukraine, much to the chagrin of Kyiv and its allies, including Washington.
“Switzerland is in the most serious crisis since the Second World War,” Scott Miller, the U.S. ambassador to Bern, told a Swiss newspaper days later. “We understand and respect it. But it is not a static construct. Switzerland can’t call itself neutral and allow one or both sides to exploit its laws to their own advantage.”
By clinging so strongly to its neutrality, Borer warns, Switzerland risks alienating those closest to it. At a time when once-neutral states such as Finland and Sweden have flocked to join NATO, he argues that what best serves Swiss national security isn’t isolation, but cooperation. “Foreign policy is here to defend Swiss interests,” he says, “and Swiss interests are best defended when we help our Western friends in case of an illegal war.”
Borer concedes that his position is an unpopular one. “If we have a referendum on giving up neutrality, I would clearly lose,” he says. Indeed, support for neutrality among the Swiss population stands at a whopping 91%, according to a recent survey conducted by the Swiss university ETH Zurich. But that doesn’t mean that the Swiss public are opposed to any form of cooperation. According to the same survey, three-quarters of Swiss people believe that sanctions against Russia are compatible with neutrality. Another survey found that a slight majority (55%) favor allowing the re-export of Swiss arms to Ukraine.
“Neutrality was never interpreted as just staying quiet and saying nothing,” says Laurent Goetschel, the director of the Swiss Peace research institute and a professor of political science at the University of Basel. “The idea that the country would stay aloof from any political collective measures and keep economic relations with everyone because it’s neutral—this time is gone.”
To be sure, Switzerland’s military neutrality does not extend to its geopolitical orientation. Though the Alpine country is not a member of the E.U., it is both geographically and economically enmeshed within the bloc. And while it may not be a part of NATO, it does have an informational relationship with the alliance through its Partnership for Peace program. “We are clearly in the Western camp,” Borer says. “Western Europe and the United States share all our values.”
There are some more conservative elements in the country who would prefer a more stringent form of neutrality. The right-wing and populist Swiss People’s Party, the largest grouping in the country’s federal assembly, has proposed an initiative that would codify Switzerland’s neutral status in its constitution, thus restricting how the government chooses to interpret its neutrality policy, including participating in sanctions. If the initiative can collect at least 100,000 signatures by spring 2024, as appears likely, the matter will be decided by national referendum.
Regardless of whether the Swiss decide to hold onto their sacrosanct neutral status, Borer believes that it no longer holds the sway that it once did—neither by Moscow (which listed Switzerland among its list of “unfriendly countries” last year), nor the West. “Neutrality is only of value if it’s internationally recognized,” he says.
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