Swiss diplomats are juggling with planning for the July 4 and 5 reconstructing Ukraine conference in Lugano, the upcoming presence of Switzerland on the UN Security Council and finding an institutional agreement with the European Union. The three represent major challenges to traditional Swiss neutrality as well as work overload.
The three challenges also pose possibilities for Switzerland to be more present in international diplomacy. Beyond merely hosting summits such as Biden-Putin or conferences like the recent WTO and ILO Ministerial meetings, the three could energize a more active Swiss foreign policy.
The Lugano conference is an opportunity to launch the reconstruction of Ukraine. Some 1000 diplomats and state officials are expected to attend. Conceived before the February 24 Russian invasion, the conference now takes on added meaning, including the presence of Ursula von der Leyden, president of the European Commission.
The search for peace and its relation to Swiss neutrality was at the heart of the Swiss national debate over its bid to be a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. While the conference on Ukrainian reconstruction is more a humanitarian enterprise, membership in the Security Council is not.
In May 2022, the Swiss executive published a list of four priorities if Switzerland was awarded non-permanent member status. They were peace-building and conflict prevention, humanitarian protection, climate security and reforms of the Security Council itself. The war in Ukraine has taken a toll on the Security Council with Russia’s veto on peace in Ukraine highlighting polarization.
Switzerland’s role on the Security Council should also focus Bern’s attention on International Geneva with its Maison de la Paix and three centers closely linked to the Swiss government.
Another positive aspect of the Swiss UN role will be to extend the foreign ministry’s vision beyond Europe. In May 2021, Switzerland broke off negotiations with the EU after seven years of futile efforts to agree on a treaty to replace over 120 bilateral agreements. Since talks with the EU are bogged down, Switzerland must now look beyond Europe and more globally from the Security Council perspective.
Lugano, New York, Brussels: Swiss diplomats are acting on three major fronts. Besides the obvious question about the relationship between the three and Swiss neutrality, the next obvious question is about the Swiss capacity to deal with all three at the same time.
Can a relatively small foreign ministry cope? Most importantly, the current situation demands that Switzerland play an increased role in international politics. Passive neutrality is no longer acceptable for a country soon to be seated at the world’s highest diplomatic table in New York.