Switzerland is about to break with centuries of tradition as a neutral state, as a pro-Ukrainian turn in public and political mood puts pressure on the government to end a ban on Swiss arms exports to war zones.
The law prevents buyers of Swiss weapons from re-exporting them, a restriction that some representatives of the country’s big arms industry say is hurting the trade.
Calls from Switzerland’s European neighbors to allow such transfers to Kyiv have grown louder as the Russian assault intensified, with Parliament’s two security committees recommending that the rules be eased accordingly.
Lawmakers are divided on the matter.
“We want to be neutral, but we are part of the Western world,” said Thierry Burkart, leader of the center-right FDP party, which has filed a motion with the government to allow the re-export of weapons to countries with similar democratic values to Switzerland.
Under Swiss neutrality, which dates back to 1815 and was enshrined in a treaty in 1907, Switzerland would not send arms directly or indirectly to combatants in a war. It also applies an embargo on arms sales to Ukraine and Russia.
In theory, other countries can request authorization from Bern to re-export the Swiss weapons they already possess, but such requests are routinely denied.
“We shouldn’t have the veto to stop others from helping Ukraine. If we do that, we support Russia, which is not a neutral position,” Burkart told Reuters.
“Other countries want to support Ukraine and do something for the security and stability of Europe… They can’t understand why Switzerland has to say no.”
More and more Swiss voters agree. A poll by the Sotomo pollster published on Sunday showed that 55% of respondents favor allowing the re-export of weapons to Ukraine.
“If we had asked this question before the war…the answer would probably have been less than 25%. Talking about changing neutrality was taboo in the past,” Lukas Golder, co-director of the GFS-Bern pollster, told Reuters.
The government said it wouldn’t prejudge the parliamentary debates despite international criticism after it denied German and Danish requests to re-export Swiss armored vehicles and ammunition for anti-aircraft tanks.
A spokesman for the Department of Economic Affairs, which is in charge of issues related to the arms trade, said that Bern “sticks to the current legal framework” and will deal with the proposals when the time is right.
Burkart claimed he had received encouragement for a legislative shift from different factions in the disjointed legislature. Social Democrats, Green Liberals, and Greens all declare they support the revisions, although Greens continue to be opposed.
Greens MP Marionna Schlatter stated that allowing arms deliveries to Ukraine risks a “slippery slope” towards the end of all restrictions and is incompatible with Switzerland’s neutrality.
As the largest party in the Swiss lower house and a longtime proponent of neutrality, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) now appears to be on the verge of internal discord.
“Allowing the shipment of arms to a country involved in an armed conflict is… destroying the foundation of peace and prosperity in our country,” said UDC MP David Zuberbueler.
Werner Salzmann, a member of the UDC in the upper house, disagrees and, in the Aargauer Zeitung newspaper, expresses his concern about collateral damage for the Swiss defense industry, which also supports the campaign for legislative change.
The sector, which includes the multinationals Lockheed Martin and Rheinmetall, sold arms worth 800 million Swiss francs (876 million dollars) abroad in 2021, according to government data, which places it among the top 15 exporting nations in the world. World.
Industry group SwissMem claims that the delicate balance between Switzerland’s robust arms industry and its longstanding neutrality is now in jeopardy.
“Some of our members have lost contracts or stopped investing in Switzerland due to the current restrictions,” SwissMem director Stefan Brupbacher said.
“Our current situation weakens our security policy (…), hinders the credibility of our foreign policy, and harms our companies,” he said. “It’s time to change.”