Switzerland’s president has ruled out the re-export of Swiss-made weapons to Ukraine, in an attempt to draw a line under an increasingly tense domestic debate on the country’s longstanding neutrality.
“Swiss weapons must not be used in wars,” President Alain Berset — who is also the country’s interior minister — said in an interview on Sunday, accusing opponents of engaging in “war frenzy” and calling for a rapid diplomatic solution to Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.
Berset’s declaration will confound those who had hoped for the beginnings of a change in Switzerland’s position.
Diplomats from Germany, France and the Netherlands have all lobbied intensively in recent months to allow stocks of Swiss-made weapons they hold in their own countries’ armouries to be sent onwards to support Ukraine’s war effort.
Under current laws, weapons made by Swiss manufacturers can be re-sold or re-gifted only with the Swiss government’s permission, and may not be sent into active war zones.
As pressure on Bern has mounted — particularly over vital stocks of anti-aircraft shells used by Gepard flak cannons — some Swiss politicians have asked for a change in their country’s stance.
Two initiatives have been wending their way through Switzerland’s complex parliamentary process — one to modify the country’s highly restrictive Federal Act on War Materiel by allowing weapons re-exports under situations with UN approval, and another to create a special “Lex Ukraine” for an urgent one-off transfer of material to Kyiv.
A poll published at the beginning of the month, meanwhile, found that 55 per cent of Swiss citizens supported the re-export of arms to help Ukraine defend itself.
But the president brushed off calls for a change in his country’s position. “To claim that Europe’s self-defence depends on the re-export of weapons from Switzerland and to demand that we disregard our existing law does not strike me as appropriate,” Berset told the NZZ newspaper on Sunday. He took aim at critical recent comments from France’s ambassador to Bern over the country’s position on weapons exports, who had said that, if the Alpine country continued to block the re-exporting of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, it posed “a problem for Europe”.
“It is precisely because we are neutral and do not allow the transfer of weapons to war zones that we can do a great deal for this continent,” he said. “Pacifism has a bad reputation right now, but warfare is not part of the Swiss DNA.”
He also accused German politicians of targeting Switzerland in order to distract from their own poor political record on delivering lethal aid to Ukraine.
Berset, a social democrat, is one of Switzerland’s seven federal councillors that constitute the executive arm of the government. The presidency rotates between them annually.
Not all of his colleagues agree with him.
Defence minister Viola Amherd, from the Centre party, told Swiss army officers in a speech this weekend that Switzerland could no longer afford to militarily “stand on the sidelines”.
Berset’s staunch, and now publicly declared opposition to any weapons delivery, makes a change in the status quo highly unlikely, however. The federal council rules by strict consensus, and parliament is still months away from agreeing to any change in the law. Even if it does, a national referendum would need to be called on the issue, a process that could take up to a year to organise.