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‘A Pimple on The Face of Europe’ - Has Switzerland Broken Its ‘Historical Neutrality’?

President Ignazio Cozzis declared last February that Switzerland would financially sanction Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in recent months. In spite of this, the Swiss president has made clear that he is not breaking with the doctrine of the nation's saint Nicholas de Flüe who once said "don't get involved in other people's affairs”. The statement was greeted with surprise by those who are not so sure that Switzerland has been neutral since 1815. Critical reinterpretation of the Alpine country's history indicates that it has indeed moved away from the traditional concept of neutrality, but most importantly, it had long before February.

Watches, Chocolate & Neutrality

Some see neutrality as an ethical imperative; others criticise passive opinion. According to the Swiss historian Hans-Ulrich Jost, Switzerland's politics, conducted under the auspices of neutrality, have failed to conform to the ideal of moral integrity throughout its history. Whether neutrality is ethically justified depends largely on the foreign policy that supports it.

Through the 20th century, the right of neutrality in its strictest sense gradually gave way to a policy of voluntary neutrality: states exercising neutrality conduct their foreign policy in a way that allows other countries to trust their neutrality and know if conflict occurs that they will stand aside. Therefore, Swiss neutrality appears to many political scientists as more of a tool of history than a mere legal feature. That is to say, it also affects Switzerland's international image and reliability. According to critics, Switzerland could jeopardise the trademark that allows it to promote its "good offices" and position Geneva as a welcoming city. However, in the century of globalisation, neutrality seems to be no longer so convenient.

Although the land of clocks and watches remains mostly reluctant to abandon its particular stance and embrace European dynamics, this has begun to progressively change. In times of interconnectivity, it requires a certain degree of inter-state cooperation in favour of international law, exemplified by its candidacy for the UN Security Council, its growing collaboration with NATO, or of course, the adoption of the EU's full package of financial sanctions against Russia.

However, despite the increasing 'break with traditionally understood neutrality', scholars such as Stefanie Walter have argued that the Alpine country has not been as neutral historically as official history claims.

The Story We Are Told

In 1815, European powers considered the country well placed to serve as a buffer zone between France and Austria. As a result, granting it neutrality in the wars so long as it stayed out would "contribute to the stability of the region". Today, for a continent like Europe, which has seen an unprecedented level of conflict over the last two centuries, a militarily isolated country like Switzerland is a refuge and a centre of calm. This glorification derives from the belief that neutral Switzerland saved Europe from two world wars. Was this the case?

‘A Pimple on The Face of Europe’

How is it possible that Switzerland, surrounded on all sides by Axis and Allied powers during the war, managed to keep enemy troops at bay without much fighting?

Swiss policy is one of "Aggressive Neutrality," which means that, while actively avoiding involvement in conflicts, it will vigorously defend its own interests. Following the Balance of Power theory, Switzerland has gone to great lengths to ensure that all other countries respect its neutrality. The country has put itself in an advantageous position by becoming extremely prepared to fight and has assured that all countries around it are aware of this.

Yet in the context of World War II, this was not enough. In an effort to discourage Hitler's invasion, Switzerland continued to export and import goods to Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy throughout the war. In contrast, when the Allies reached the Swiss border, Switzerland began to decrease its trade with Germany and increase it with the Allies. Both sides sold gold to Switzerland at some point during the war. Likewise, each side openly exerted pressure on Switzerland not to trade with the other; especially Paris and London, on the pretext that the Germans were evading funds in Switzerland, to which the Swiss responded by clinging to their liberal values of free trade.

On top of that, an independent research report on Switzerland's World War II history concludes that Swiss officials "helped the Nazi regime achieve its goals" by closing the country's borders to thousands of Jewish refugees, sending them back to almost certain death. Private banks also made it extraordinarily difficult for Jewish Holocaust survivors to recover money deposited in Swiss accounts for safekeeping before the outbreak of war in 1939.

Almost half a century later, Switzerland apologised to the Jewish community, with a statement by Federal President Kaspar Villiger in 1995 declaring that "[they] bear a considerable burden of guilt for the treatment of Jews by [their] country". Although its geographical location condemned it to be irretrievably subsumed into the German economic sphere, trade during the war enriched the nation enormously.

Switzerland's Future After The Russian Invasion

Three months into the invasion, Ukrainian President Zelenski called for more sanctions, shortly after the US government's Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticised and possibly indicted Switzerland. "Long known as a destination for war criminals and kleptocrats to stash their plunder, Switzerland is a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies. After looting Russia, Putin and his oligarchs use Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes".

Does the implementation of sanctions come from growing pressure from the international community? Is the swiss stance a defence of liberal democratic values? or does it mean something else?

It is also extremely important to know that this might imply a weakening of the country's mediating personality and which could potentially make a peace agreement more complicated to achieve.

A Tax Haven

The neutral position, then, becomes more of a cloak to disguise flexibility to cooperate depending on the circumstances. But that may not mean the same thing in each case. Pascale Baeriswyl, the Swiss ambassador to the UN, acknowledges that Switzerland cannot avoid taking a stance on difficult foreign policy issues. "Switzerland is not neutral when it comes to violations of international law”.

Nevertheless, from a critical point of view, it appears that Swiss neutrality is more of an economic and political 'semi-autarchy', against the tide of global dynamics, driven by a clear prioritisation of material interests over moral obligations to the international community. Switzerland has managed to maintain an economic, social and political model largely thanks to the huge influx of capital flight. If the tax haven were to fail, its economic model would have to be redirected and, with it, the country's impartiality, since one of the most logical ways out of this problem would be, even if only to a minimal extent, a certain degree of integration into the European Union.

Experts such as Neal Jesse argue that neutrality for Switzerland has always been malleable. Money is not neutral and globalisation is making the isolationist project quite impracticable.


References/Wider Reading

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