Neutral Switzerland wants to take part in Sky Shield defense project
PHOTO CAPTION: German Air Force soldiers walk past convoy vehicles, as Patriot mobile defense surface-to-air missile systems are transported to Poland from Gnoien, Germany, January 23, 2023. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse
ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland wants to participate in the European Sky Shield air defence umbrella, the government said on Tuesday, a move which critics say is incompatible with the country's long-standing tradition of neutrality.
European Sky Shield is a common air defence scheme set up by Germany in 2022 to boost European air defence, an issue which has come into sharper focus since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Swiss Defence Minister Viola Amherd is due to sign a declaration of intent to join the programme during a meeting with her counterparts from Austria and Germany on Friday.
"Switzerland wishes to participate in the European Sky Shield Initiative and a declaration of intent is due to be signed in Bern," the Defence Ministry told Reuters, confirming an earlier report by broadcaster SRF.
Some 17 European countries have so far signed up to the Sky Shield project including Germany, Britain, Finland and Sweden.
It aims to cut costs for countries by coordinating their procurement of air and missile defence systems such as the Patriot missile system. It also aims to enable cooperation in training, maintenance and logistics.
Neutral Switzerland has come under increasing pressure from its European neighbours since Russia's invasion in Feb. 2022 to support Ukraine militarily by allowing the re-export of Swiss-made armaments.
Last week Bern rejected a request by Swiss defence firm RUAG to sell 96 Leopard 1 A5 main battle tanks for use in Ukraine. It has also previously vetoed requests from Denmark and Germany which had wanted to send Swiss-made armoured vehicles and ammunition to help Ukraine.
The Sky Shield move has provoked concerns from Switzerland's neutrality lobby.
"This does not fit with a strictly neutral Switzerland," said Werner Gartenmann of the lobby group Pro Schweiz.
He said he was concerned the move would make Switzerland militarily dependent on foreign countries and NATO and would turn the country into a target.
(Reporting by John Revill; Editing by Gareth Jones)