Background - 06.05.2022 - 00:00 

Neutrality put to the test: Switzerland's and Austria's foreign policy in times of war

For both Switzerland and Austria, neutrality in military and political conflicts has long been a defining feature of their foreign policy. A panel discussion with Ignazio Cassis and Karoline Edtstadler during the St.Gallen Symposium at the HSG explored the question of what neutrality looks like in times of war in Ukraine.
Source: HSG Newsroom

6 May 2022. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, both countries adopted sanctions against the Kremlin and Russia as part of a coordinated European response. What role can neutrality currently play in the countries' foreign policy? What are the immediate and long-term implications of current developments for the role of the two countries in Europe and the world? Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, member of the Global Public Policy Institute, discussed with President Ignazio Cassis from Switzerland and Karoline Edtstadler, Austria's Federal Minister for the EU and Constitution in the Federal Chancellery.

"One for all, all for one"

Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis began the panel discussion by addressing the specifics of neutrality in Switzerland. "For Switzerland, neutrality policy is an instrument of peacekeeping. However, as we are currently painfully learning, values are not as universal as we often assume in westernised society." The war in Ukraine is challenging Switzerland to redefine its neutrality without neglecting the fundamental values of Swiss society, he said. "As early as kindergarten, we learn in Switzerland: one for all, all for one. In times of crisis, we have to join forces and stand together." For this reason, he said, Switzerland has adopted the sanctions against the Kremlin and Russia. However, joining NATO and active participation in a war are not compatible with Swiss neutrality, he said.

"Pulling out all the stops to end the war"

Austria's perspective was highlighted by Karoline Edtstadler, Federal Minister for the EU and Constitution in the Federal Chancellery. On the podium, she pleaded for setting all political and diplomatic levers in motion to end the war. Austria, too, cultivates the principle of neutrality in foreign policy, but since its accession to the EU in 1995 this has been narrowed by new constitutional provisions. Edtstadler stressed that in times of a war of aggression such as in Ukraine, the political instruments must be fully utilised to put the aggressor in his place. At the same time, she very much regretted that with the sanctions, Russia's civilian population now has no possibility to file a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights.

Lisa Yasko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament, addressed the question to Cassis and Edtstadler from the audience of the packed auditorium at the University of St.Gallen: "What political tools can bring peace and secure it in the long term?" Austria is trying everything to build bridges and Switzerland is also using its political tools to end the war with sanctions and diplomatic channels, the panel was told. At the end of the discussion, two questions from the audience remained unanswered: When does neutrality not work? And can Switzerland only afford its neutrality because other states are not?

Plea for more participation

Turning to the young participants in the audience, Ignazio Cassis said: "Participate in direct democracy. Use the political instruments to actively help shape our society. Or - if you don't agree with anything, make a revolution." Karoline Edtstadler was equally emphatic in her plea for participation in democracy: "Contribute your ideas and stand up for our democratic values." Freedom and peace are not a given, they must always be actively established through dialogue and negotiation.