Switzerland has built its modern identity around remaining neutral. But its stubborn refusal to join the European Union stems from a complex history and a desire to protect its sovereignty.
For most people, Swiss neutrality evokes images of secret bank accounts, lush alpine pastures untouched by war, and a people set in their peaceful ways. But scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find a complicated relationship with the concept of neutrality.
Switzerland’s neutrality has long provided cover for questionable dealings. During World War II, Switzerland didn’t officially take sides, allowing both Nazi and Jewish money to pass through its banks. Its Red Cross tended to both Allied and Axis wounded. Yet historians still debate whether Switzerland’s “neutrality” amounted to cowardice or cunning pragmatism.
In recent decades, Switzerland’s relationship with neutrality has evolved further. It joined the UN in 2002 but still refuses EU membership. And as war returned to Europe in 2022, its neutral stance drew renewed criticism from allies.
To understand Switzerland’s fraught relationship with neutrality requires examining how the policy developed over centuries and why integration into the EU remains a red line for the Swiss government and populace.
The Origins of Swiss Neutrality
Switzerland’s neutral stance has roots stretching back centuries though the policy wasn’t formalized until the Napoleonic Wars.
The territory of modern-day Switzerland first gained independence during the Peace of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years War in 1648. However, Swiss lands remained disputed for centuries.
In 1803, Napolean invaded Switzerland, annexing some areas. After Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at Waterloo, the Congress of Vienna fully recognized modern Switzerland’s borders and neutrality.
The Swiss Confederation made a calculated bargain: Switzerland pledged never to serve as mercenaries for foreign powers again if the European powers respected its neutrality and refrained from invading its territory.
This policy was later enshrined into law. A revised 1874 Swiss constitution codified direct democratic governance. When World War One erupted in 1914, Switzerland declared its intention to remain neutral.
Switzerland in World War II: Profiteering from Neutrality?
Switzerland’s controversial version of neutrality hardened during World War II. As a haven from the chaos, Switzerland attracted both Nazi elites and Jewish refugees.
Nazi Germany publicly pledged to respect Swiss neutrality. But some historians argue Switzerland maintained an amoral, self-serving neutrality, profiting from its refusal to take sides while surrounded by fascist powers.
Swiss banks held assets looted from Holocaust victims. Its tight banking secrecy laws shielded Nazis hiding stolen wealth. On the other hand, Switzerland’s neutral status allowed its Red Cross to aid POWs on both sides.
Some also argue that Switzerland’s neutrality allowed it to broker secret negotiations like the 1945 surrender of German forces in Italy to the Allies.
Post-War: Cherry Picking Global Integration
After the war, Switzerland continued treading a fine line between global integration and independence. It helped found the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960 but spurned early European integration efforts like the European Economic Area (EEA).
Switzerland also dragged its feet on universal human rights, granting women’s suffrage only in 1971. Support for far-right anti-immigration policies surged in the 1990s with the rise of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP).
But Switzerland also took steps toward facing its past. In the 1990s, Swiss banks paid $1.25 billion to Holocaust survivors after admitting to holding their lost wealth.
And in 2002, the historically isolationist Swiss voted to join the UN, hoping to play an active role in peacekeeping without entering binding alliances.
Swiss Opposition to the European Union
Today, Switzerland’s obstinate rejection of EU membership stems from a desire to safeguard its economic prosperity, political sovereignty, and neutral status.
Economics Switzerland boasts one of Europe’s strongest economies and sees few advantages to EU membership. It already has trade deals ensuring access to the EU single market. As a net contributor, Switzerland would end up financially supporting weaker economies.
Switzerland also worries that EU labor freedom of movement could undercut its higher Swiss wages and welfare system. EU regulatory burdens could make Switzerland less attractive as an independent financial hub.
Politics The stable Swiss political system sees EU membership as undermining its cherished direct democracy and sovereignty. The EU’s supranational laws and courts could restrict Swiss referendum rights.
Swiss citizens also reject sacrificing their independence to collective European defense policies. EU mutual defense clauses would force Switzerland to abandon its neutrality in future European conflicts.
Geography Unlike Nordic countries that have dropped neutral stances to join the EU or NATO, Switzerland benefits from its central location surrounded by EU/NATO powers. It can remain neutral but still enjoy protection through geography.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led countries like Finland and Sweden to rethink neutrality and seek NATO membership. But landlocked Switzerland’s borders remain buffered by EU and NATO states, allowing it to maintain its neutral positioning.
Ongoing Controversy Over Swiss Neutrality
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has reignited tensions over Swiss neutrality. Switzerland refuses to directly supply weapons to Ukraine, citing neutrality, despite pleas from NATO.
But Switzerland also toes a delicate line by adopting some EU sanctions on Russia while blocking NATO overflights. This “active neutrality” aims to promote peace without fully committing to one side.
Critics see Switzerland’s position as outdated and self-serving, especially as it continues profiting from Russian business. But conservative Swiss parties are pushing to enshrine stronger neutrality protections in the constitution. They support a strict reading of neutrality.
Most Swiss still believe neutrality serves their best interests by keeping them out of other countries’ wars. Unless that calculation shifts, Switzerland is unlikely to reconsider longtime opposition to abandoning neutral tradition to join the EU.
Switzerland’s stubborn neutrality stance stems from a tangled history and hard-nosed calculation of national interests. For centuries, Switzerland has selectively integrated with the world only when it serves Swiss priorities.
While detractors condemn Swiss neutrality as self-serving, the Swiss see it as a shrewd policy that has kept their country prosperous and at peace. Unless Switzerland sees a clear benefit, don’t expect its citizens or government to readily trade cherished neutrality for EU membership.