Neutrality: Switzerland's image is crumbling

When the Swiss once again assert their neutrality and claim a special role, foreign diplomats and politicians roll their eyes more and more often.

Neutrality: Switzerland's image is crumbling

When the Swiss once again assert their neutrality and claim a special role, foreign diplomats and politicians roll their eyes more and more often. Switzerland's reputation is cracking. "In the future, our neighbors will ask themselves even more how far we want to accommodate Switzerland politically," says political scientist Christoph Frei from the University of St. Gallen. "We're on our way to losing friends."

Speaking of sanctions against Russia: when the war began, the government in Bern initially said that Switzerland was neutral and would not take part. The about-face quickly came under pressure from abroad, even though Frei says she's only partly going along with it. "For example, when it comes to commodity trading, the authorities act as if they didn't know how important trade via Switzerland is for Russia," he told the German Press Agency.

Keyword oligarch funds: By the end of 2022, almost eight billion Swiss francs were blocked by Russians who are close to President Vladimir Putin. However, many more billions are suspected in Switzerland. Talking about weapons: Switzerland refuses to pass on ammunition that it sold to allies to Ukraine. In Berlin, the waving through of migrants to Germany was also a nuisance, as was the undermining of shareholder rights in the financial world when Credit Suisse was rescued. Numerous lawsuits are pending.

Criticism from prominent corners

However, the Swiss Foreign Ministry only claims to have heard critical tones in the media. "Although the media have a certain influence on a country's image, this is not the only factor," it said when asked. "So far we have no evidence of a significant deterioration in our overall perception that would have lasting negative consequences."

The criticism comes from prominent quarters: For example Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of the NATO defense alliance: "It's not about neutrality. It's about the right to self-defense," he said in Davos in January. "In my view, neutrality dates back to the last century," said the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, Christoph Heusgen. Switzerland must help defend the international legal order.

"Sanctions are only as strong as the political will behind them," US Ambassador Scott Miller told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Switzerland could certainly block 50 or 100 billion francs more in oligarch funds. "We expect Switzerland to jump over its neutralist shadow in certain areas," said German Ambassador Michael Flügger on television. "Switzerland has massacred its reputation," said Swiss Green MP Gerhard Andrey when parliament decided not to lift the ban on ammunition forwarding to Ukraine.

Entry into the UN followed in 2002

In the Ukraine support tracker of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Switzerland was ranked 21st out of 40 countries as of February 24, 2023. It is about humanitarian, financial and military aid.

Switzerland always claims a special role for itself. She likes to do her own thing politically - except when it comes to the economy and market access. It did not join the United Nations until 2002. Located in the heart of Europe, it rejects EU membership and in 2021 broke off years of negotiations to update the bilateral agreements. "We have gone from being a special case to a problem and must be careful not to become a social case by clinging to yesterday's stories," warns Frei.

The debacle surrounding Credit Suisse, in which shareholder rights were overturned by emergency law, could also damage the image, says Diana Ingenhoff, Professor of Organizational Communication and Public Diplomacy at the Swiss University of Freiburg of the dpa. "There are transfer effects: Switzerland positions itself as a strong financial center, the Swiss banks benefit from Switzerland's image. Credit Suisse even had the country's name in its title. If something then goes wrong, it also rubs off on the country's image. "

However, Switzerland is still very popular in the polls. Johanna Gollnhofer, Director of the Institute for Marketing at the University of St. Gallen, says: "The reputation of a brand or a country are associations in the mind. They change very slowly, something would have to happen over the years, otherwise little will stick in the end . Switzerland is known as a safe haven, as close to nature and reliable, that will not be destroyed in the short term."

The Presence Switzerland department in the Foreign Ministry is responsible for promoting Switzerland's image abroad. Everything is fine, she reported after the most recent survey in December 2022, Switzerland is ahead of Germany, Sweden, Great Britain and others. In the November 2022 Ipsos survey on perceptions of countries around the world, Germany came first and Switzerland ranked 7th.

Frei: "Get off the high horse"

Frei sees a need for action: "As a wealthy, often privileged country, we must finally spend significantly more money, both for humanitarian aid and for security." He promotes a Swiss contribution to NATO. Switzerland benefits from the fact that NATO finances all aspects of security. "To a certain extent, NATO is a donut - and Switzerland is the hole in the middle," said the US ambassador.

"Switzerland usually holds on to its positions as long as possible and often only reacts to strong external pressure," says Ingenhoff. "Under today's social and media conditions, it would be advisable, with a view to Switzerland's image, to position yourself more proactively as an innovative, creative helper and to get more involved in conflict prevention, peacebuilding and humanitarian aid," she says. "We would have to get off the high horse and accept that we too are on the way to becoming a normal European country," says Frei.