Swiss neutrality on the line as arms-for-Ukraine debate heats up
By John Revill
ZURICH (Reuters) -Switzerland is close to breaking with centuries of tradition as a neutral state, as a pro-Ukraine shift in the public and political mood puts pressure on the government to end a ban on exports of Swiss weapons to war zones.
Buyers of Swiss arms are legally prevented from re-exporting them, a restriction that some representing the country's large weapons industry say is now hurting trade.
Calls from Switzerland's European neighbours to allow such transfers to Kyiv have meanwhile grown louder as Russia's assault intensifies, and parliament's two security committees recommended that the rules be eased accordingly.
Lawmakers are divided on the issue.
"We want to be neutral, but we are part of the western world," said Thierry Burkart, leader of the centre-right FDP party, who has submitted a motion to the government to allow arms re-exports to countries with similar democratic values to Switzerland.
Under Swiss neutrality, which dates back to 1815 and is enshrined by treaty in 1907, Switzerland will not send weapons directly or indirectly to combatants in a war. It operates a separate embargo on arms sales to Ukraine and Russia.
Third countries can in theory apply to Bern to re-export Swiss weapons they have in their stocks, but permission is almost always denied.
"We shouldn't have the veto to stop others 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 cannot understand why Switzerland has to say no."
Increasing numbers of Swiss voters agree. A survey by pollsters Sotomo published on Sunday showed 55% of respondents favour allowing weapons re-exports to Ukraine.
"If we had asked this question before the war..., the response would have probably been less than 25%. Talking about changing neutrality was a taboo in the past," Lukas Golder, co-director of pollsters GFS-Bern, told Reuters.
The government - under pressure from abroad after rejecting German and Danish requests for permission to re-export Swiss armoured vehicles and ammunition for anti-aircraft tanks - said it would not prejudge parliamentary discussions.
Bern "adheres to the existing legal framework.. and will deal with the proposals in due course," said a spokesman for the Department of Economic Affairs, which oversees arms-related trade issues.
Burkart said he had received positive signals on a law change from other parties in the fragmented legislature.
The left-leaning Social Democrats say they are in favour of changes, as are the Green Liberals, although the Greens remain opposed.
Green MP Marionna Schlatter said allowing weapon deliveries to Ukraine risked a "slippery slope" towards ending all restrictions, and was incompatible with Switzerland's neutrality.
Meanwhile the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), the lower house's largest party and traditionally staunch defenders of neutrality, now appears divided.
"Allowing arms shipments to a country involved in an armed conflict is ... destroying the basis of peace and prosperity in our country," said SVP lawmaker David Zuberbueler.
SVP member Werner Salzmann, who sits in the upper parliamentary house, disagrees, raising concerns in the Aargauer Zeitung daily about collateral damage to a Swiss defence industry that also backs the campaign for a law change.
The sector, which includes multinationals Lockheed Martin and Rheinmetall, sold 800 million Swiss francs' ($876 million) worth of armaments abroad in 2021 according to government data, putting it in the global top 15 of exporter nations.
Having a strong arms industry has gone hand in hand with the tradition of neutrality, but the balance of this duality may now be under threat, industry association SwissMem said.
"Some of our members have lost contracts or are no longer investing in Switzerland because of the current restrictions," said SwissMem director Stefan Brupbacher.
"Our current situation weakens our security policy..., hampers the credibility of our foreign policy and damages our companies," he said. "It's time to change."
($1 = 0.9132 Swiss francs)
(Reporting by John Revill; editing by John Stonestreet and Hugh Lawson)