Neutrality in Switzerland - Is Switzerland still neutral?

In this episode, we’ll be talking about Swiss neutrality, in light of Switzerland’s recent decision to join the international community in imposing sanctions on Russia.

Switzerland has not officially taken part in conflict since 1815 and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. This neutrality is a key principle of Swiss foreign policy, and has allowed its diplomats room to manoeuvre to pursue various objectives.

Now however, the country has taken a position regarding Russia’s attack on Ukraine. As we will see, it isn’t easy being neutral nowadays.

Here to discuss this with us is Clare O’Dea. Clare is an Irish author and journalist living in Fribourg. She has worked for Swissinfo and has written three books, including The Naked Swiss, which examines the main stereotypes about the country and its people, including neutrality.



Daniel 00:04

Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Expert Guide to Your Life in Switzerland. My name is Daniel and I'm part of the team here at Rigby. We're a staffing and IT services company based in Zurich.

Diccon 00:14

And my name is Diccon. I'm an author and I live in Bern, and today we're going to talk about yet another thing that is to do with life in Switzerland.

Daniel 00:23

Yes, in this episode, we'll be talking about neutrality in Switzerland in light of the country's recent decision to join the international community in imposing sanctions on Russia. Switzerland has not officially taken part in conflict since 1815, when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. This neutrality is a key principle of Swiss foreign policy and has allowed its diplomats room to manoeuvre to pursue various objectives.

Now, however, the country has taken a position regarding Russia's attack on Ukraine. As we will see, it isn't easy being neutral nowadays. Here to discuss this with us is Clare O'Dea. Clare is an Irish author and journalist living in Fribourg. She worked for Swissinfo and has written three books, including The Naked Swiss, which examines the main stereotypes about the country and its people, including neutrality.

Diccon 01:12

Well, maybe you can start us off Clare, what is the current situation with Swiss neutrality? Oh, are we still neutral?

Clare 01:19

Well, it depends who you ask. Neutrality is in the eye of the beholder, and some Swiss in a certain camp in Switzerland, who are very particular about neutrality and quite virginal about it. And there are others who are, let's say a bit more open and progressive.

So from my point of view, I don't think that Swiss neutrality has fundamentally changed in the last month regarding what the Swiss did in response to Russia's attack on Ukraine. To me, I think it is in line with with the moves that were have already been made in different situations. So, I think Swiss neutrality is still valid.

Diccon 02:03

I think sometimes neutrality is difficult. I don't think there's any two ways about it. But I think sometimes not taking sides is actually taking sides. And I think that's the situation that Switzerland was in with Russia. But we could argue that it's breaking a precedent, if we look back at Swiss neutrality over the last, say, 200 years. Do you think it's evolved Clare? Or is this just the latest stage of being realistic?

Clare 02:35

Well, I've been a bit of a swat and I've been looking back, actually, the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs, has issued a new brochure, which is very readable. It's a new document that explains Swiss neutrality, and they just published it on the fourth of March. So it was just post the sanctions, post Switzerland falling into line with the EU sanctions. So it has a little bit of the history there. So it saved me having to look at big heavy history books. But um, Switzerland joined the League of Nations in 1920.

Diccon 03:10

And actually, hosted the League of Nations. It was in Geneva. So they were integral part of it.

Clare 03:16

Indeed. And from the beginning, they were exempt from League of Nations military, League of Nations military sanctions, but they were prepared to share in economic sanctions. So that's a sign that there has been this wriggle room with regard to sanctions in the past and Switzerland has sanctioned other countries, but more specifically I suppose it's been more active in condemning state violence in the past in various different theatres of conflict, like even Israel, Switzerland has condemned illegal settlements and disproportionate use of force in the Palestinian territories. It's condemned Syria, what Syria, what was going on in Syria, especially in the early days of the conflict there, including the chemical weapons attacks. And North Korea..

Diccon 04:10

Although I think you'd have to say though that with Saudi Arabia, it's been a bit more circumspect over the Khashoggi murder and the situation in Yemen. There has been, Switzerland has been a little bit quieter on that, and that's attracted quite a lot of criticism, both here and abroad.

Clare 04:30

Yeah, that's very true. And it's probably because of this role they have, being a protecting power mandate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and that probably makes them, yeah, choose their choose their words and actions more carefully.

Diccon 04:49

And I think that's an interesting point. Do you think Switzerland's words and actions carry more weight than another country because of its role as being neutral as being home to the UN in in Europe, the Red Cross and being a mediator. So, I mean, it was interesting that when Switzerland did join the sanctions, even President Biden mentioned it in the State of Union address. And so, it kind of amplifies the effect of what Switzerland does, maybe.

Clare 05:17

Yeah actually, I think you're right. I think that Switzerland is not just neutral, it's famously neutral. Like there are other neutral countries in Europe, say, Ireland, for example. But nobody pays much attention. But Switzerland, it's so much part of the Swiss brand to be neutral. I mean, they really blow that trumpet a lot. And, and they do extraordinarily good work with peacebuilding and mediation and peace broking, and all that kind of stuff. So that was one of the things that I had in my chapter about neutrality is that the Swiss are neutral, but they're not passive.

Diccon 05:59

No. There's this whole concept of armed neutrality, which has been around for a while, obviously, men had to do national service. Switzerland has an army, and it defends itself, or it would defend itself if it were attacked. And it also has an arms trade. And I was actually looking, I did a bit of homework as well, looking up the arms trade in Switzerland, and it is quite substantial in that it's around 900 million francs' worth every year, exporting to 62 different countries. And it's in the top 20 arms traders in the world. So, although in Swiss terms, it's not even 1% of GDP, it's well below what the recommended NATO spending level is. It's still quite significant. And I don't know how you feel about that, Daniel, as the only non-Swiss person in the room, would you expect a neutral country to have an arms trade?

Daniel 07:02

Well, Diccon, I am Swiss now, right? I have Swiss citizenship.

Diccon 07:07

You are Swiss now? When did that happen?

Daniel 07:09

Oh, maybe three or four months ago, I got it. It's endlessly complex. I mean, Clare, you mentioned for instance, Switzerland's position on Israel and Palestine and the conflict there. But, you know, senior Swiss officials were reportedly visiting Israel not too long ago to to inquire about their drone technology, and so on. So, you know, it's a complex subject.

Diccon 07:31

But can you - and it's a fundamental question for me, even before I came here - can you claim to be neutral if you are selling arms to other countries? The answer is yes - you sell them to both sides, so therefore you're neutral.

Clare 07:46

Yeah. Well, they do have safeguards, don't they? But obviously, the safeguards are not totally foolproof. But there is an end user certificate, so they're only selling to countries that aren't actively in conflict. But of course, that can change from one year to the next.

Diccon 08:04

And well, people can lie as well, as we know, especially politicians, and people who are in charge of countries do lie every now and then. So that's how you end up with Swiss Arms being used in Lebanon, and Bahrain and places like that, which had been documented over the years. So no, it's not foolproof, sadly.

Daniel 08:26

Diccon, you mentioned the army there. You know I was looking this up and the army at the moment, including the reserves is about 800,000 people, which is almost 10% of the entire population.

Diccon 08:36

Well, yes, but they're not permanently in the army. It's not a standing army.

Diccon 08:39

They're reserves at 24 hours' notice, because men have to do national service up until a certain age or they have to specifically say they won't do it. And whereas they used to go to prison, friends of ours went to prison, rather than do national service. These days, you can do community service instead. And there's the interesting thing is actually a proposal that was talked about by the government a couple of weeks ago, extending that national service to everyone, so women included, but then making it less onerous if you choose to do the community service. So therefore, it becomes more like community service, and you can choose military or non-military. So, I think I mean, Switzerland is a military country. I've never seen so many soldiers and so many guns in my life as I have here. Because you just don't see them in Britain in the same way and I guess not in Ireland either.

Daniel 08:39

Yes of course.

Clare 09:31

No, that's, that's the big difference between Swiss neutrality and Irish neutrality is it's armed neutrality. And they have actually had to, well, yeah, sort of defend their borders, at least move troops to their borders and be prepared to repel an invasion. Yeah, during the two World Wars and Ireland only has a tiny army. I think it's fewer than 11,000 soldiers.

Diccon 09:57

And I think geography has a lot to do that because, um, there's a big difference between Switzerland and Ireland in geography, obviously. But also being neutral didn't really help Belgium in either world war, because of where it is. And not only where it is, but the landscape it is, Belgium relatively flat. And sadly, it turned out relatively easy to conquer, whereas Switzerland would be almost the opposite.

So, I think geography and location, topography have all helped Swiss neutrality over the years, which could mean that is now obsolete, because we can see, war has moved on from the Second World War. Although in Ukraine at the moment, we can see tanks, etc., etc. But it's much more about drones, and about airstrikes about cyber war. So how does neutrality work in relation to that? How can you be neutral in the face of that sort of attack? Is it at all realistic? So, I'm playing devil's advocate here.

Clare 10:54

Well, yeah, who's going to answer that? Or is it a rhetorical question?

Diccon 10:57

It's a rhetorical question I think because I don't think anyone can answer that. I think it's really hard. And I think Switzerland is right to have this discussion and to talk about what modern neutrality means. And if it still has a role in today's world.

Clare 11:13

Yeah, yeah, indeed. And then another thing you were going to, that you wanted to bring up was about Switzerland's membership of the UN Security Council.

Diccon 11:23

Yes, a permanent seat.

Clare 11:25

Yes, that's also split opinion.

Diccon 11:28

Yes. So, Switzerland finally joined the United Nations in 2002 after a referendum, which kind of feels weird when you look back at it, because as you said before, they were a founding member of the League of Nations, and they were exempt from certain types of sanctions. And when this was voted on previously, Swiss people categorically, like in the 80s, refused to join the United Nations. Then of course things changed with the end of the Cold War, and Switzerland joined the UN in 2002. And now they're campaigning to have a non-permanent seat on the Security Council and the vote is in June. Do you think - Clare, as our neutrality expert - do you think that is now in danger that Switzerland won't get its seat? Or that there'll be enough domestic opposition to it, that it will withdraw the application?

Clare 12:18

No, I think it'll definitely go ahead. I think it goes back to maybe 2011. There's this really long process that Switzerland has gone through and then there was the final hurdle, let's say, there was a vote in Parliament last week, brought by the Swiss People's Party to block that process, block that membership application, and it was defeated. So, I don't see anything else standing in the way between now and June. And it's just that seeing as Russia is a permanent member of that Security Council. We're seeing how..

Diccon 12:58

And it's currently President actually!

Clare 13:01

Currently President? Even worse! So, it makes it makes you.. yeah, it just looks like another one of these imperfect solutions to try and make a better world. I don't know if Switzerland is going to be well, I mean, at least I, at least Switzerland will be on this on the side of human rights in there. And it will do, the country will do its best.

Diccon 13:01

And maybe it could actually carry on its mediating role within the Security Council, because the Security Council is in effect the world in miniature, and you have the five permanent members. And you have obviously France, Britain, America on one side, Russia on the other and China somewhere in the middle at the moment. So, maybe Switzerland being on the Security Council will actually help things by having a neutral country that can act as a broker or mediator between the different powers within the Security Council. Maybe that's an overly optimistic view.

Clare 13:57

Well, hope is all we have Diccon!

Diccon 14:00

Well, I hope we have more than that. We have Switzerland on our side! But I think you brought up an interesting point about the moral obligations, because I think that was the, one of the defining points of what Switzerland did last month was that it can remain militarily neutral, and even politically neutral, but morally neutral it's decided not to. And I think obviously, there was a lot of outside pressure from the EU from the United States, possibly even from Britain, if anyone takes any notice of what Britain says anymore. But also domestically, there was a lot of support, a lot of demonstrations saying that Switzerland should fall in-line with what the EU had decided because, not least that a lot of Russian money is here, a lot of Russian oil and gas is traded through Switzerland. And so, it did make a difference that Switzerland took a stand and I think sometimes you have to be on the side of humanity and not on the side of neutrality.

Clare 15:01

Yeah, very well put.

Diccon 15:04

Sometimes I have my moments!

Clare 15:08

But Diccon, we wouldn't have been able to hold our heads up, you know, it would have been, I would have just been embarrassed to be Swiss if I mean, even that delay of a few days between the EU sanctions and the Swiss adopting them was torture. I mean, you know, it would have been, would have been fatal for the reputation of the country.

Diccon 15:25

And I think what we have to remember in the background is that there are ongoing negotiations between Switzerland and the EU about our whole future together. So, in Switzerland last year, ditched the negotiations after seven years. And so, if Switzerland had refused to go along with the sanctions, or had watered them down horrendously, I think that would have had ramifications politically and economically for the relationship with the EU. And let's not forget that Switzerland is completely surrounded by the EU in 75% of its imports and exports are with its big neighbour. And so, although the immediate issue was the war in Ukraine, and the EU sanctions, I think there was a, there was an ulterior motive involved as well. That's not me now being very cynical. But I think you can't be out-of-step with the EU on an issue this big, and then expect the European Union to negotiate with you as an equal, and the negotiations are ongoing. I think one thing we should talk about is this theory or this viewpoint that has been expressed recently, within quite a few articles that Switzerland is having its cake and eating it, it's being morally superior, looking down on the rest of the world, and only taking decisions when its own self-interest is at stake. Do you think that's in any way valid, either of you?

Daniel 16:49

No, absolutely not? I think Switzerland is just taking its time and thinking about it, and that their adoption of the EU sanctions don't alter their neutrality in any way.

Diccon 16:58

Would you agree, Clare? Or do you think it's a bit more nuanced?

Clare 17:02

It's the whole behaviour of Switzerland as a financial centre. That's kind of the weak point in Switzerland's holier than thou costume, you know? Because the protections are not strong enough, the punishments are not strong enough to keep out dirty money from Switzerland. So, Switzerland, Swiss financial institutions and financial intermediaries end up facilitating corruption and worse things around the world. So that..

Diccon 17:33

There's the Credit Suisse leak, which has happened at the same time, all this is going on. The Credit Suisse leaks have shown that there is still dirty money around.

Clare 17:43

Yes, so that does undermine the case, when Switzerland is also presenting itself as as a moral crusader and a peace broker. And on the side of all that's right and good. So, yeah.

Diccon 17:57

And of course, the elephant in the room, is what happened during the Second World War, when Switzerland was neutral, and survived, as a neutral country wasn't invaded, wasn't conquered. It was only accidentally bombed by the Americans because they didn't know where the border was. And yet, turned away Jewish refugees from the border, said the boat is full. So, can you really be said to be neutral when you're doing that? And, of course, the whole story of what happened after the war with Nazi gold and with Jewish bank accounts. I think that has tainted people's view of Swiss neutrality for a long time. And it's still in the background of any discussion about Swiss neutrality and about moral decisions. Wouldn't you agree?

Clare 18:42

Definitely. I mean, that maybe as time goes by that particular reputation problem has got weaker, or you know, faded a bit, you know, because the more time goes by, the less people are up-to-date on what happened, or remember what happened in World War Two. But the Swiss, I think there's so much you can say about the Second World War. First of all, you know, a lot of countries, at least the people, the Jewish population inside Switzerland were protected. A certain number in the early years of the war, many refugees were able to either come and stay in Switzerland or pass through Switzerland. So, that's actually more than a lot of other countries in Europe did. And you know, I would say about my own country, Ireland went very much out of its way to avoid taking in any Jewish refugees whatsoever. So, Switzerland is sometimes unfairly singled out on certain issues, but they did sort of, they kept dealings open with both sides, the allies and the Nazis and they were financially useful to both. And also, they were representing the interests of like, 50 states or something. Like, it was also a diplomatic hub during the Second World War. So Switzerland I think, its neutrality was kind of a necessary, I wouldn't say 'evil', but a necessary function.

Diccon 20:06

Fact of life. It was a fact of life. They were surrounded, they were cut off from the rest of the world. And I think a lot of people look at what happened either through rose-tinted spectacles, or through very, very tinted spectacles and only see the good or only seen the bad unfortunately. But I was really happy to see that Switzerland has been very nimble in Swiss terms, in terms of accepting Ukrainian refugees, creating a special S visa for them, letting them work here, letting them go to school here, letting them claim benefits here for the first year and then, with the option to renew and sweeping away the bureaucracy that Switzerland is famous for, even though it's not part of the European Union. And you look at how differently officialdom in Britain is treating refugees making them go to Brussels to apply for visas or things like that. I think Switzerland has reacted very well. And you could say, in opposition to its neutrality, it's opening up its borders to Ukrainian refugees, which I think is the humanitarian side of Switzerland, as the home of the Red Cross. And the founder of the Red Cross is something that we should be proud of.

Daniel 21:23

You know, today I passed by a temporary asylum seeker centre for Ukrainians here in Zurich. And it's quite something, with the signs up in Ukrainian.

Diccon 21:30

Yeah, and they had a report on the Swiss evening news the other day about primary schools waiting to accept school children and working out how they're going to communicate with children who speak no German or English, or even French, and just putting a plan into action to help people in need, which I think is what Switzerland does very well.

Clare 21:53

Yeah. And it's, it's very reminiscent of the refugees that came after the Hungarian uprising, they were also welcomed with open arms. And after the Prague Spring as well, and even the war in the former Yugoslavia, Switzerland accepted a huge number of refugees from there.

Diccon 22:14

Yes, which is why we have a lot of people with Yugoslavian surnames living in Switzerland, why there's a huge Kosovan population here, a very big Albanian population and obviously Serbian, Croatian. So, they make up quite a significant minority in Switzerland, especially in the eastern cantons. And I think it's another reason why there are Sri Lankans here, or Tibetans here because they've all managed to escape war and come to Switzerland. So, I think, in the whole discussion of neutrality and the good things and the bad things about it, whether historically or today, I think that's one thing that stands out - that Switzerland can do well, if it puts its mind to it.

Daniel 22:54

And then we have a nice happy note to end on.

Clare 22:56

Yes, let's be positive!

Diccon 22:59

Let's be positive.

Daniel 23:00

All right, well, then let's finish by telling listeners a little bit about you as a way of saying goodbye.

Diccon 23:05

My name is Diccon Bewes and I live in Bern, and I write books about Switzerland. And I know Clare, you've written more than one book. I've definitely read the Naked Swiss. So, tell us about your latest book.

Clare 23:16

Okay, well, it's another big topic in Switzerland: democracy. So, last year was 50 years since since Swiss women got the right to vote. And I've written a novel, that's set actually in 1959, on the day that men voted no to granting women the vote. So that novel is called Voting Day.

Diccon 23:35

And it's an English.

Clare 23:37

And it's an English and German and French and Italian.

Diccon 23:40

And you of course, you wrote all four of them. You're quadrilingual of course, being a good Swiss citizen:

Clare 23:45

No, I worked with wonderful translators. But thanks very much for having me on the podcast. I really enjoyed our conversation, and I'd love to come back another time.

Diccon 23:56

Thank you, Clare. Well, the next time we're talking about something really controversial and we need a voice of reason, we'll invite you back!

Daniel 24:03

Alright, that'll do it for this time. Thanks again to Clare for joining us and to you for listening. This podcast was brought to you by Rigby we're a staffing and IT services company based in Zurich. If you're looking for an IT role here in Switzerland, or if you're looking to hire, let us know we'd be happy to help. The best way to do that is by sending an email to Thanks.