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EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland rejected a German arms delivery to Ukraine

Switzerland has repeatedly blocked the export of everything from weapons to helmets to Ukraine, even for non-military uses. Here’s why.

Switzerland's support of Ukraine cannot include arms or even protective devices.Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Switzerland's support of Ukraine cannot include arms or even protective devices.Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

On Monday, news came to light that Switzerland had blocked a German weapons delivery to Ukraine, as it contained Swiss ammunition used in anti aircraft devices. 

Switzerland vetoed the delivery based on its commitment to neutrality, which prevents any delivery of weapons or other items which could be used in combat to countries where an active war is taking place. 

This is the case even if the items are in the possession of another country. 

Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) said the delivery “must be rejected by law”. 

“Due to the duration and intensity of the fighting between Russia and Ukraine, both countries are involved in an international armed conflict” SECO wrote on Sunday. 

Sanctions on Russia: Is Switzerland still a neutral nation?

Since then, it has emerged that Switzerland has blocked a wide variety of items from being exported to Ukraine, including helmets, protective vests, footwear and medical supplies. 

More than 50 requests have been made by Ukrainian officials and other organisations based in Ukraine for the items, all of which have been rebuffed. 

Even requests for non-military uses have been denied, with a delivery of helmets to a Ukrainian fire fighting brigade vetoed. 

No export for countries at war

Switzerland’s commitment to neutrality is centred around a pledge for military neutrality, which falls only if Switzerland is attacked. 

This pledge of military neutrality does not extend to political neutrality, which allows Switzerland to support sanctions efforts on Russia. 

In late February, Switzerland announced it would join sanctions efforts on Russia, with President Ignazio Cassis arguing that by doing nothing, Switzerland would be “playing into the hands of an aggressor”. 

Switzerland’s War Materials Act includes a strict prohibition on the export of weapons to countries at war. 

READ MORE: Switzerland to impose sanctions on Russia

Swiss legal experts argue that this prohibition extends further to include defensive items such as helmets and footwear. 

According to legal analysis, Switzerland would only be allowed to export weapons or any other items to countries at war if Switzerland itself was under threat. 

Other neutral countries have however taken a different approach, with neutral Sweden already sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. 

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‘Iron weathercock’: Europe reacts to Liz Truss becoming new British PM

European leaders and political commentators on Monday reacted to Liz Truss being elected as new Conservative party leader and therefore succeeding Boris Johnson as UK prime minister, and there were plenty of Margaret Thatcher references.

'Iron weathercock': Europe reacts to Liz Truss becoming new British PM

Truss was announced as the winner of the Conservative party leadership race on Monday afternoon, beating Rishi Sunak in a vote by party members.

Her victory, which means she becomes Britain’s next Prime Minister, was expected given her healthy lead in the polls.

Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz was one of the first leaders to react.

Scholz on Monday congratulated Truss on her victory and offered a stock response on how he sees cooperation between the UK and Germany.

“I am looking forward to our cooperation in these challenging times. The UK and Germany will continue to work closely together — as partners and friends,” Scholz said on Twitter.

European leaders hoping for more constructive post-Brexit relations with the UK will be wary of Truss as prime minister given she has frequently raised tensions with Brussels by demanding parts of the Brexit deal be renegotiated and threatened to provoke a trade war between the EU and the UK by triggering Article 16 of the Withdrawal Agreement.

The President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen was therefore understandably prudent in her response to the news. 

“Congratulations Liz Truss. The EU and the UK are partners. We face many challenges together, from climate change to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I look forward to a constructive relationship, in full respect of our agreements,” said Von der Leyen.

French leader Emmanuel Macron responded by tweeting, in English, his congratulations to the new prime minister on Monday night.

“Congratulations to Liz Truss on her election. The British people are our friends, the British nation is our ally. Let us continue working together to defend our shared interests,” said the French President on Twitter.

Macron recently played down comments from Truss, who had refused to say if the French leader was a “friend or foe” during a campaign event. He said the UK were friends “whoever its leaders were”.

Alexandre Holroyd, the French MP who represents French citizens living in the UK, also appeared to have those comments in mind when he tweeted: “After intemperate campaign declarations, it is time for responsibilities, especially the one of strengthening the friendship – historical and current – that unites our two countries and that is essential to our mutual security and prosperity.”

Media commentators across Europe have been making comparisons between Truss and former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

But instead of calling her the new “Iron Lady” (Dame de fer) French newspaper Les Echos referred to Truss as the Giroutte de Fer – in other words an “Iron Weathercock”, a reference to criticism that the new PM has changed her stance on issues to suit her quest for power. She was once a member of the Liberal Democrats party before switching to the Conservatives.

Elsewhere in Europe there were more direct comparisons between Truss and Thatcher and references to huge job she has to get Britain through the current crisis, which some media blamed on her predecessor Boris Johnson.

Austria’s daily Kurier wrote “Like her role model Margaret Thatcher, the new Prime Minister preaches free market, less state and more patriotism.”

A story by Die Presse also mentioned that Truss was now facing her “big career goal”. It added that she would have to take action soon, especially regarding the energy crisis. 

The newspaper highlighted that Truss’ government would essentially be a continuation of the Johnson years and noted that she, like the former PM, is a “convinced Brexit supporter”.

Much commentary focused around the job Truss has following in the footsteps of Boris Johnson given the country is facing a critical cost of living crisis with inflation and energy bills rising steeply. Many economists say the crisis has been worsened by Britain’s exit from the EU, which was directed by Johnson’s government.

An article in Norway’s Aftenposten simply said “Liz Truss must clear up Boris Johnson’s mess”.

Spain’s leading newspaper El Pais said Truss will continue the populist strategy of Johnson.

She will “promise citizens a rose-tinted future, without clarifying how she intends to achieve it”, the paper said.

Italy’s newspapers focused on the fact she’s the UK’s third female prime minister probably because Italy is about to get its first.

Newspaper Corriere said Truss dresses like Thatcher and her speeches are “robotic”.

The headline in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter read: “When Great Britain has big problems, a woman takes over” but the editorial by Katrine Marçal said “the expectations for Truss as a leader could scarcely be lower.”

Sweden’s Svenska Dagbladet headline pointed to the many problems facing the new Prime Minister. “Truss takes over: everything apart from Armageddon awaits”.