by Maurizio Sacchi

Switzerland will maintain unchanged its regulations on the export and, above all, re-export of weapons. This was the decision of the Council of States, which rejected Councillor Thierry Burkart’s motion to at least relax the ban against third countries. Burkart’s motion argued that a relaxation of the re-export regulation would not contravene neutrality, and would strengthen the technological and industrial base of the Swiss Confederation. “Several countries to which we have denied re-exportation,” the councillor explained, “have made it clear to us that they might turn elsewhere in the future for arms supplies”.

An economic motivation, according to the Swiss right-winger. According to the initiator, the motion served the very purpose of protecting the Swiss arms industry and, only as a reflex, ‘to make our armed neutrality credible’, Burkart added. For the Swiss councillor, ‘the war in Ukraine shows how close military cooperation is between countries that share our values, which include respect for international law that has been grossly violated by Russia. If we deny them the right to mutually transfer weapons and weapon systems purchased in Switzerland, we hinder their security efforts, from which we also benefit’.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is undermining Switzerland’s centuries-old neutrality and putting the country in a situation of conflicting interests, compounded by accusations of pursuing a ‘neutrality of economic interest’. The Swiss arms industry produces munitions essential for some of the weapons the Europeans have supplied to Ukraine, as well as some of the promised Leopard 2 tanks. But the rules on where these weapons can go are strict: a law, now the subject of heated debate, prohibits the Swiss Confederation from selling Swiss arms to any nation at war or supplying them to third countries for re-export and use in a conflict (in this case to Ukraine).

Currently, an export licence for Swiss war material can only be granted if the purchasing state signs a declaration of non-re-export, promising that the material will not be sold to third countries. This is to prevent Swiss weapons being used in armed conflicts or ending up in the hands of terrorists. However, the opponents of the motion noted that ‘if Switzerland were to change its laws in the course of a war in order to grant a select group of states the right to re-export its weapons, it would lose its credibility in the eyes of the world and debase the neutrality that has repeatedly protected us from bloody conflicts in the past. If even a single munition manufactured in Switzerland were fired at Russia, we would immediately be placed in the camp of that country’s adversaries. Switzerland can make itself useful in this war in other ways, through humanitarian aid or by building bridges between the contenders as is our tradition’.

The motion was therefore defeated, with 23 votes against, 18 in favour and 2 abstentions. Burkart is an exponent of the right-wing fringe of the FDP. He describes himself as ‘consistently bourgeois’ and has transport and economic policy as political priorities. In addition to hammering on the issue of security. In 2008, he became vice-president of Perspective CH, a movement that, according to his own statements, claims to support ‘cosmopolitanism and sovereignty’.

In terms of security policy, he supports a civil army with modern equipment and calls for new fighter planes for the Swiss Air Force. In August 2021, Burkart was elected president of the new security policy group Allianz Sicherheit Schweiz. This civic-minded organisation sees itself as the antithesis of the Group for a Switzerland without Armed Forces (GSoA – GSsE), an anti-militarist organisation that opposes any involvement of the Swiss Confederation in war and is committed to global justice.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on Switzerland to take a clearer side in the conflict. The US ambassador to Bern, Scott Miller, said he was unhappy with the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco), which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of sanctions on Russia. His concern is over ‘some comments’ by Director Helene Budliger Artieda, which ‘call into question the usefulness of the sanctions’.

The US would take note of the CHF 7.75 billion of Russian assets frozen in Switzerland, the diplomat added. But “Switzerland could freeze another 50-100 billion”, according to Miller, who called for international coordination agreements. The US ambassador in Bern also urged the Swiss Confederation to take part in the task force “Russian Elites, Proxies and Oligarchs” and to participate in the discussion on how to confiscate these funds within the framework of international and national state law. Switzerland has so far shown no such willingness. And for the US ambassador in Berne, countries that do not engage in the confiscation of Russian funds should expect consequences.

With regard to the discussion on the supply of weapons, Miller believes that Switzerland is in the most serious crisis since the Second World War. “It is confronting the meaning of neutrality. We understand and respect it,’ says the US ambassador. But it is not a static construction. For Miller, Berne cannot call itself neutral and allow one or both sides to use its laws to their advantage. ‘The US and a large part of the international community that supports Ukraine believe that the Swiss parliament should allow the re-export as soon as possible,’ the diplomat says. If Berne had taken it for granted that Swiss war material would never be used in conflicts, it would never have been able to supply weapons to other countries, Miller concludes.

These statements, made by the US ambassador in Berne to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on Thursday 16 March, were described as ‘irritating’ by the national councillor of the canton of Ticino, Marco Romano, who said that the right to property and economic freedom anchored in the constitution cannot be ignored just because you are ‘an oligarch’, as it mirrors a certain ‘ignorance’ widespread abroad about the Swiss political and constitutional system.

“It is certainly true that Switzerland is under pressure and that the words of the US ambassador have an important resonance,” explained the Ticino MP from Mendrisio. “But that does not mean that we should trample on property rights, which for us is an essential value, as is perhaps the case elsewhere (…) I am the first one to fight for the seizure of assets that are the fruit of illegal activities, as in the case of organised crime, but the basis is a crime recognised as such by a court. This does not mean, however, that if you are an Italian citizen, then all your assets must be seized, just because you might smell of the Mafia (…) As for the transparency of the banking sector questioned by the US ambassador, I do not believe that the United States can give us lessons,’ Romano pointed out.

In the meantime, Switzerland has decided to get rid of its British-made Rapier surface-to-air batteries: 60 systems purchased by the Swiss Confederation in the 1980s, regularly upgraded since then, were declared unfit for service three months ago, and destined for scrapping, even though this type of equipment is precisely what Ukraine requires. Another sign of Switzerland’s refusal to abandon its neutrality. In recent weeks, Berne has refused to supply Germany with almost 12,000 munitions for the Guepard anti-aircraft tanks. The reason is the one already mentioned: the ammunition was produced in Switzerland and export clauses prohibit its transfer to a country at war.

‘Swiss weapons must not be used in wars,’ reiterated the President of the Swiss Confederation, the socialist Alain Berset, on 8 March in New York. He went on to denounce ‘a murderous frenzy in certain circles’. Berset added: ‘I respect the position of other countries, but Switzerland’s position must also be respected.

This neutrality dates back to 1525, after the bloody defeat of the Swiss at Marignano. The battle put an end once and for all to Swiss aspirations in Milan, and the Confederation never again went to war against France or the Lombard city. In fact, after 1525 Switzerland never again took part in a conflict (apart from the conquest of Vaud by the Canton of Bern, which acted alone in 1536) and there was never again a Swiss military offensive against an external enemy. Swiss historiography tends to attribute this to the ‘lesson of Marignano’, but it was formalised in 1815 and reaffirmed in 1993 by a Federal Council report.

Officially 90% of the Swiss support neutrality. But more and more voices are being raised to denounce the hypocrisy of this position, which stops where economic interests begin. Switzerland sells a lot of weapons, the equivalent of 1% of its gross domestic product. Some ecologists, liberals, Christian Democrats and socialists support a revision of this position. Only the SVP, the right-wing populist movement, wants to maintain neutrality at all costs. And proposes to include it in the constitution. But according to polls, 53% of the Swiss reject the idea of permanent neutrality.


Cover image: copyright-free – Swiss army parade, 2006