Foreign affairs

How neutral is Switzerland, really?

It isn’t easy being neutral these days. With unilateralism on the rise in global politics, Switzerland is finding it more difficult to interpret its neutrality. In an increasingly polarised world, Swiss political decisions risk upsetting one partner or the other.

Philip Schaufelberger (illustration)

Neutrality, as an instrument of foreign policy, is so firmly rooted in the national consciousness that it seems indisputable. It gives diplomats enough room to manoeuvre to pursue their goals.

Up to now, Switzerland has benefited from its neutral status as “neutrality has allowed the country to be recognised as an independent political actor,” said Laurent Goetschel, director of the research institute Swisspeace in Bern in an interview with Swiss public television SRF in 2018.

However, the question is: how much longer will the Swiss be able to hold on to this room to manoeuvre? Should Switzerland make deals with Washington or Beijing, Brussels or Moscow, Tehran or Riyadh? These decisions arise more often on issues such as importing technology and trade agreements but also when it comes to the importance of universal values and international law when selecting trade partners.

One example is the long-standing trade dispute between the US and China. Switzerland aims to sign a free trade agreement with the US while also seeking to update its existing trade agreement with Beijing.

Switzerland’s efforts to clarify its relationship with the European Union is another example. The EU could be less tolerant of Switzerland’s reluctance to adopt EU sanctions against Russia.

The country also faced difficult decisions when it came to the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Switzerland opted out of a joint EU statement demanding an investigation into his murder and calling on Saudi Arabia to support it.

How do Swiss political leaders navigate these dilemmas? “In this increasingly polarised world, Switzerland needs to know exactly what it wants,” foreign minister Ignazio Cassis recently tweeted.

The definition of neutrality is disputed in domestic political circles. Depending on their foreign policy vision, politicians interpret the term differently. Left-wing politicians tend to push for an active policy of neutrality, which allows Switzerland to take a stand on issues. In contrast, right-wing parties often equate neutrality with non-interference and restraint.

Surveys indicate that neutrality is very important to the Swiss public. A 2018 survey found that 95% of Swiss were in favour of maintaining neutrality. It also showed that over the last two decades the Swiss have increasingly called for a stricter interpretation of neutrality.

Officially, Swiss neutrality is still considered to be the ability to negotiate with anyone. However, Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer clarified: “This does not necessarily mean that we always agree on all points.”

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