Swiss Parliament Supports Arms Re-Export to Ukraine and Breaks Image of “Neutrality”
Thursday, June 8, 2023
Ahmed Adel, Cairo-based geopolitics and political economy researcher
A bill in Switzerland calls into question its neutrality in the Ukrainian conflict because the country’s Senate approved the amendment authorising the re-export of arms to Ukraine, according to a statement from the parliament. This effectively breaks Switzerland’s long-held image of a “neutral” country.
The Senate of Switzerland voted on June 7 to adopt an amendment to the law on re-exporting weapons to countries involved in armed conflict. Buyer states of Swiss armaments and military equipment will now, under certain conditions, have the right to transfer weapons to countries where a war is being waged.
Responding to this development, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted: “I thank the Swiss parliament’s upper house for an important move to unblock the re-export of Swiss-made weapons. We are looking forward to the next steps. I am grateful to Switzerland for its solidarity with Ukraine while upholding its neutrality.”
Nonetheless, the press release about the bill specifies that since certain deputies from the left, centrists and the People’s Party voted against it, the members of the National Council (lower house of parliament) will therefore have to look again at the question. For these deputies, the right of neutrality is called into question with this bill.
“This project is mainly targeted to support the arms industry rather than to help Ukraine,” said Mathias Zopfi, MP for the canton of Glarus and member of the Greens group.
According to him, the retroactive nature of this solution is also problematic, which is why making changes to exports that have already been carried out risks undermining legal certainty.
MP Jean-Luc Addor of the Swiss People’s Party, which holds the most seats, was one of the main opponents of this proposal, saying: “Accepting this initiative means committing oneself to one of the protagonists (…) and therefore violating neutrality.”
With 22 MPs favouring the bill, 17 against, and four abstaining, the decision demonstrates that Switzerland is no longer a neutral country.
It is recalled that in May, Germany requested to purchase 25 Swiss Leopard 2 tanks to send to Ukraine, which won the support of Switzerland’s government. Switzerland announced that it was in favour of decommissioning the tanks and selling them back to their maker Rheinmetall AG, as requested by Berlin.
More recently, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte asked Switzerland to deliver 96 non-operation Leopard 1 battle tanks stored in Italy to Ukraine. Swiss officials declined to comment on Rutte’s request.
The action by the Swiss Senate comes only a week after Switzerland’s President Alain Berset met his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky at the European Political Community summit in Moldova. Swiss public radio RTS reported that the two leaders discussed the arms re-export question and cited Berset as saying that “The Ukrainians very well understand Switzerland’s position and role” and that he had a “productive meeting with Mr Zelensky about the situation on the ground, Swiss humanitarian aid and reconstruction.”
Given Switzerland’s famed neutrality, it appears that the country is moving on from it, considering that they already imposed sanctions against Russia and are pushing for weapons transfers. A February poll published by Neue Zürcher Zeitung found that 55% of the Swiss population would support third-party delivery of weapons purchased from Switzerland.
Other polls show that Swiss support for neutrality is still overwhelming. A survey for the government indicated that support for Swiss neutrality fell from 97% to 89% between January 2022, before the Russian special military operation began, and June 2022. The same poll found that support for limited cooperation with NATO, which would supposedly not imply joining the Alliance, also increased from 45% to 52%.
Now the Swiss cannot present a façade and rhetoric of neutrality as they simultaneously want increased cooperation with NATO and allow weapon transfers to Ukraine whilst sanctioning Russia. Although Switzerland is surrounded by European Union member states, therefore warping its worldview into a Eurocentric one, non-European countries are certainly noticing the behaviour of the Alpine country, which in turn will change perceptions of supposed neutrality.
Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelensky will appeal to the Swiss parliament via video call on June 15, as announced recently by the speaker of the National Council, Martin Candinas. Thomas Aeschi, the leader of the parliamentary group of the Swiss People’s Party, lambasted the decision for Zelensky to speak, highlighting that it is an attempt to influence the debate on the supply of weapons and ammunition before stressing that most of his faction will not attend the speech.
How influential Zelensky’s speech will be remains to be seen. But as often said, to be neutral, you have to remain neutral, something Switzerland has not been since it first imposed sanctions on Russia in March 2022. Although Switzerland will appease and align with its immediate neighbourhood, it has effectively destroyed its image as a trustworthy international banking hub.
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