Cooperation opportunities with the EU in Security and Defence? Not without challenges!


Frieden & Sicherheit

The security dynamics resulting from the war in Ukraine are reshaping international relations. Despite internal and external challenges, Swiss interests and vision would benefit from enhanced cooperation with European Union in security, defence and peace.

from Maxime Sierro

The revamping of European security foundations represents the occasion for Switzerland to reflect on its place in the European Union’s security environment. However, Swiss foreign policy has since long been in a difficult balancing act. Between international involvement and a policy of neutrality, the tipping point can appear rather close.

Strategic objectives call for action

In its Foreign policy strategy 2020-2023, the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs defined peace and security as one of its main area of focus. Such a policy area cannot be driven by isolationism, but must come from pursuing an active approach that combines cooperation with the promotion of a certain vision of security. The war in Ukraine proved this approach to be a necessity.

In the February 2023 Foreign Policy Report, the Federal Council underlined the continued importance of neutrality as the basis for cooperation. This strenuous balancing act has proven to be a risky game to play, often leading to intense debates and questioning.

Yet, despite this policy, there are other strategic interests at the core of Swiss foreign policy and opportunities for cooperation with the European Union. The Swiss participation in the EU-led mission EUFOR Althea in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Administrative Arrangement between the European Defence Agency and the Swiss Department of Defence (VBS) are two notable examples.

One thing is for sure: Switzerland could gain a lot from enhancing its cooperation with the Union, but many challenges could prove difficult to overcome.

Opportunities at hand

Beyond the existing frameworks, such as the Administrative Arrangement, new avenues of cooperation are available. In its latest strategic document, the “Strategic Compass”, the EU lays down its objectives in international security, defence and peace, and the necessary tools to achieve them. As part of its work strand, called “Act”, the Compass proposes to make the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions better equipped, to respond to crises more adequately. From a participatory standpoint, Switzerland would benefit from an increase in cooperation in this field.

Perhaps less obvious, yet no less relevant, the Compass provides for a myriad of strategies, documents, and objectives in domains of strategic interest to Switzerland. These include cyber, spatial, and maritime strategies. While Switzerland cannot, as a third party, be involved directly in the development of these strategies, they will impact Swiss policies. The Federal Space Policy 2023 would benefit from complementing the EU Space Strategy for Security and Defence, for example. Establishing connections with the relevant agencies and private stakeholders could prove to be effective.

In addition to the Compass, industrial dynamics also provide opportunities. While the Swiss defence industry has little chance of competing with the heavy weight of the European industry, cooperation would advance technological innovation. The current tendency in the Union to promote a stronger European defence industrial base, notably through the PESCO framework, represents industrial opportunities. The ensuing budget increases will demand higher-performing technologies, for the development of which Swiss industries could play a role.

The war in Ukraine has also shaken a lot of the preconceptions about norms and values. Western democratic standards are facing increased competition. In this new security paradigm, Switzerland finds itself part of countries that fear losing the principles they have promoted for so long. Not foreign to these fears, Switzerland could advocate a vision of security inspired by its experience in peacebuilding and international cooperation. Switzerland would most surely benefit from the experience the EU has developed over time.

Challenges ahead

More cooperation seems possible, and maybe even desirable, but the challenges are numerous. There has for a long time been resistance to the involvement of Swiss personnel or materials in conflict zones. A strict and unambiguous application of the neutrality policy supported by democratic institutions is a necessity to avoid internal political discredit.

At the European level, Switzerland will face three main challenges. First, negotiations between the EU and Switzerland are currently focused on interinstitutional questions, where security topics hold a secondary place. Second, despite all possible efforts, Switzerland remains a third party in the eyes of its European partners, thus preventing a deep level of cooperation. Third, the policy of neutrality will participate in the image of being an unreliable partner. There will be reservations about involving Swiss technologies if it represents potential future constraints.

In conclusion

If attentive and strategic in its interactions, Switzerland could use the momentum to create more proactive relations with its partners in peace-keeping/-building initiatives, in industrial cooperation, and to lobby for its vision of security. It is now the task of politicians and diplomats to put things in motion.


Image credits: Ghinzo via pixabay