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Austria and Switzerland join German-led air defence project

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Austria and Switzerland join German-led air defence project
German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius, Swiss Defence Minister Viola Amherd and Klaudia Tanner, Defence Minister of Austria, speak during this year's DACH meeting of German-speaking defence ministers. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/KEYSTONE | Alessandro Della Valle

Austria and Switzerland have officially joined the air defence initiative known as "European Sky Shield," initiated by Germany, in response to the changing security situation in Europe.

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During a meeting in Bern on Friday, the defence ministers of Austria, Switzerland, and Germany signed a declaration of intent, signalling their commitment to the project.

The initiative, launched last year in the wake of Russian aggression against Ukraine, aims to address gaps in air defence across Europe. So far it has included 17 member states, all of which are NATO members. Austria and Switzerland are the first neutral states to have expressed their desire to join.

However, the two nations have stressed that their involvement does not compromise their neutrality and that they view their contribution as focusing on cooperation in training, maintenance, and logistics, as both countries are not members of NATO.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius stressed that each participating country would retain decision-making authority regarding the interception of enemy projectiles, dispelling concerns about a joint command structure. The ministers highlighted the importance of interoperability and ensuring effective cooperation between air defence systems in the event of a threat.

In Switzerland, the majority of political forces, except for the national-conservative SVP, support the country's participation in the Sky Shield project.

The Chairman of the FDP, Thierry Burkart, who has advocated for military cooperation since Russia's attack on Ukraine, said that there are threatening situations where Switzerland cannot defend itself alone. On Friday, Swiss Defence Minister Viola Amherd made it clear that the decision to participate lies within the government's competence and there will be no parliamentary vote on the matter.

READ ALSO: Neutral Switzerland ready to join Germany's Sky Shield plan

The Austrian government, on the other hand, has faced sharp criticism from the right. On Friday, FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl called for a referendum, claiming that the 'turquoise-green' government has been gradually undermining and abolishing neutrality since the start of the Ukrainian war, such as through approval of EU sanctions or the parliamentary speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Kickl claimed that a 'black-green-red-pink unity party' is leading Austria toward NATO.

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German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius summed up the cooperation with the two neutral neighbouring countries by saying: "You can be friends without being allies".

Austria and Switzerland have differing positions on certain issues regarding help for the Ukraine war effort. For example, Vienna refused Ukraine's request to provide mine clearance equipment, citing neutrality. On the other hand, Swiss Defence Minister Amherd announced that Bern would be actively involved in mine clearance. 

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