Swiss Foreign Policy, 1992

Jan 1, 2023

New Documents on Switzerland’s Foreign Policy 1992

On December 6, 1992, the Swiss electorate sealed a turning point in Switzerland’s European policy. Switzerland’s accession to the European Economic Area (EEA) suffered a shipwreck. «The Federal Council acknowledges and respects this decision», declared President René Felber after the vote, but regretted «that Switzerland is thus renouncing the possibilities of openness offered to the country and is thus also breaking its policy of rapprochement with Europe, a political intention since the Second World War» ( How did this break come about?  

The Dodis research centre has analysed numerous documents relating to the fateful year of 1992 and published a selection of them in the Dodis database and in the latest volume of Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland, just in time with the expiration of their legal protection period on January 1, 2023. «The files show», says Dodis Director Sacha Zala, «that at the end of the certainties of the Cold War, it was precisely the issues of political integration that challenged Switzerland the most.»  

A Shambles of European Policy  

It was still spring when the Federal Council decided to rapidly submit an application to the European Communities (EC) to begin accession negotiations. The decision was not undisputed: while the representatives of Latin Switzerland pleaded for a swift move forward, Federal Councillors Arnold Koller and Adolf Ogi feared that such a discussion could put a strain on the votes on the EEA and on the New Railway Link through the Alps. Federal Councillor Kaspar Villiger stressed that the EEA had «a real chance», while the accession question was «still very controversial». In a second round of discussions, Transport Minister Ogi abandoned his opposition, thus tipping the scales ( On May 20, the Federal Council adopted the letters of accession to the EC.
For the EEA vote, this turned out to be a communicative high-wire act. The best-known and most powerful opponent of the EEA was Christoph Blocher, a National Councillor of the Swiss People’s Party from Zurich. In the Economic Affairs Committee, he called for «enforcing» bilateral agreements with the EC, but found no allies among most of his colleagues. Pascal Couchepin, Radical Democratic National Councillor from Valais, warned against the increasing emotionalisation of the debate, which would ultimately endanger democracy (
A heated referendum campaign was waged in and outside parliament, which ended in shambles for the Federal Council in terms of European policy after the decision on St. Nicholas Day. Although there were internal regrets that not all Federal Councillors had spoken out clearly in favour of the EEA in a public appearance, the task now was to «accept the decision of the sovereign», to heal the «torn wounds» as quickly as possible, to «reunite the country» and to prevent renunciation from spreading (  

Global Economic and Financial Relations  

Swiss trade diplomacy also tried to counteract the omnipresent focus on Europe in 1992 and presented itself as eager to network at the global level. Bilateral trade with China (, with the emerging «Asian Tiger» Taiwan (, or with Argentina and Chile ( were at the centre of these considerations. The Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, whose negotiations had to be unblocked in the area of agriculture, was considered the most important instrument for strengthening non-European contacts (
As far as financial policy was concerned, the people and the cantons decided in May that Switzerland would join the Bretton Woods Institutions. Switzerland was to exert influence through an additional Executive Council seat and the formation of a new group of countries, because «if you don’t reach your goal right away and accept a folding chair, you’ll never get back to the table» ( With Poland and the new Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, Switzerland finally combined enough weight and moved into the International Monetary Fund as head of the so-called «Helvetistan» voting group. The WEF in Davos provided an opportunity to build relations with the newly independent states as did a remarkable initiative by the Federal Council, where President Felber received the heads of state of the CIS countries (

«Best Possible Compromises» in Environmental Policy  

The main event of multilateral cooperation was the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. After active preparatory work by Switzerland, delegates from 178 countries negotiated solutions to global environmental problems in Rio de Janeiro ( At the signing of the Climate Convention, Environment Minister Cotti solemnly announced that Switzerland would stabilise its CO2 emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. His final report stated that the best possible compromises had been reached at the «Rio Earth Summit» (
In a major campaign, Switzerland subsequently sought to have the Secretariat of the Commission on Sustainable Development located in Geneva. While UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali let it be known that he had other plans for the UN headquarters in Geneva as early as in April (, his negative decision at the end of the year still came as a surprise to Switzerland, which had persuaded the majority of UN member states to support Geneva as a key location for environmental policy making ( It was not Switzerland’s only defeat in competition for a site in 1992, as The Hague was chosen to host the Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons ( On the other hand, Geneva’s candidacy for the seat of the CSCE’s Court of Conciliation and Arbitration was successful (  

War and Peacekeeping  

In 1992, the CSCE devoted itself entirely to conflict prevention and crisis management, which was acutely called for after the upheaval in the structure of Europe’s security policy. The CSCE dealt with the war in the former Yugoslavia as well as the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria and Abkhazia, where it would later conduct peacekeeping operations in cooperation with NATO and the Western European Union (WEU) ( On its part, the Federal Council presented in August a roadmap on how a first Swiss blue helmet battalion could be made available to the UN and the CSCE from the end of 1994 onwards ( Swiss UN military observers had been stationed in the Middle East since 1990, and the deployment of a Swiss medical unit in Western Sahara was extended.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Switzerland participated in both the CSCE missions and the UN Protection Force. In addition, humanitarian aid was to alleviate the suffering of the war victims. Because of the large number of workers from the former Yugoslavia, the warlike events in Bosnia had «eminent political significance for Switzerland». The country has a «special moral obligation» to increase its aid ( With this in mind, Switzerland allowed hundreds of children and persons in need of protection to enter the country from Bosnia. At the same time, the return of seasonal workers from Macedonia and Kosovo was provisionally still considered possible ( In the field of asylum policy, the concept of so-called «safe countries» continued to be intensively discussed (  

The Nerve Centre of Swiss Neutrality  

Finally, the changing European security architecture shook the essence of Swiss self-perception and a Federal Council study group called for the «reorientation of foreign policy with regard to neutrality» ( When a discussion paper of the Military Department pointed out the limits of the autonomous defence capability of the Swiss Armed Forces, the FDFA warned «the nerve centre of Swiss neutrality» was affected: «If the army of the neutral small state of Switzerland can in future only fulfil its military mission in association with foreign armed forces, if neutrality loses its protective effect and becomes a risk», this would undermine its very «foundation» (
After an exchange with the neutral states of Austria, Sweden and Finland ( and the observation that they had «decided to move closer to NATO and WEU», Defence Minister Kaspar Villiger addressed Foreign Minister Felber directly: there was now a need for Switzerland to take a similar step, because «only in this way could we avoid becoming isolated in terms of security policy» (
The negative result of the EEA referendum, which brought 1992 to a close, did not change the Swiss interest in security policy integration. «It remains to be seen», says Dodis Director Sacha Zala, «whether this desire for cooperation will materialise in 1993.» The files, which will become freely accessible in a year’s time, will show.