Switzerland considers closer ties with NATO. How close?

Wednesday, 7 February 2024

Switzerland is officially neutral and not a NATO member. But it's not that simple.

However, since 1996 it has taken part in NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme.There are no binding legal obligations, such as collective defence. 

It is believed that this format of cooperation fully satisfies the Alliance.

Times are changing though, and NATO appears now much more attractive to the Swiss citizens, as stated in the article on Swissinfo by Thomas Stevens' article – Switzerland and NATO: just flirting or the start of a wild marriage?

"In view of the significant deterioration in the security situation there is a need to strengthen Switzerland’s defence capability," the Swiss government said in a statement on January 31.

They emphasise: "In addition, security and defence policy will be geared more consistently to international cooperation, especially with NATO, the EU and neighbouring countries."

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shook up the European security framework. NATO, which French President Emmanuel Macron had dismissed in 2019 as becoming brain-dead, has got a new lease of life with the accession of Finland last year and once-neutral Sweden next in line to join.

Since the war in Ukraine there has been much debate in Switzerland about a rapprochement with NATO, and the move has found support in almost all political camps and among the public. The question is how close this cooperation should be.

Most Swiss people would like closer ties with NATO, but they are not eager to join the Alliance.

So how will the relationship develop?

Stefan Holenstein, president of one of the largest associations of Swiss soldiers, gives the example of integrating Swiss air defence into the NATO air defence system and its command and communication structure.

"That would be a rapprochement with NATO but not accession. To put it somewhat crudely: 'Flirt yes, marry no!," says Holenstein.

Soon afterwards Burkart's Radical-Liberal colleague Damien Cottier wrote in an op-ed for Le Temps that Switzerland was fortunately not at risk of aggression from its immediate neighbours: a "barrier" of NATO member states separated it from Russia.

"But the hope that we will be protected free of charge is a dangerous pipe dream. Our country cannot be a freeloader when it comes to European security," he clarified.

In January 2024, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Swiss President Viola Amherd held consultations at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The compromises Switzerland would have to make to gain access to NATO's protection, including its "nuclear umbrella", are unclear.

But, according to Le Temps, when they met in Brussels Stoltenberg urged Amherd not to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

For its part, NATO says membership is open to "any other European state in a position to further the principles of this [Washington] Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area."

"Other countries benefit from having a neutral state where meetings can be held. Geneva wouldn't be Geneva were Switzerland in NATO," emphasises Lea Schaad, a security researcher at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich.

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