Neutral Austria, Switzerland join European Sky Shield

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Austria and Switzerland officially joined the German-led European Sky Shield (ESSI) air defence programme as they signed a declaration of intent on Friday (7 July).

The ESSI was initiated by Germany in the wake of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine in 2022. Members of the programme declared their intention to jointly purchase defence equipment to protect their airspace. The two new countries bring the number of members up to 19, including Britain and the Netherlands, but not France.

“We have signed the declaration of intent of the European Sky Shield Initiative. We will decide to which extent we want to contribute and this is currently under review,” Viola Amherd, the Swiss Federal councillor responsible for defence, told reporters after an annual summit of the defence ministers of Austria, Germany and Switzerland in Bern.

“I am convinced that this project is the necessary European answer to protect our airspace,” Austrian Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner said.

Austria and Switzerland reaffirm neutrality

Despite joining the programme, Austria and Switzerland still intend to remain neutral in military conflicts.

“We have registered our neutrality-related concerns together with Austria in an additional special declaration to foreclose any involvement in international military conflict,” Amherd elaborated. She stressed, however, that Switzerland had never been politically neutral and would always call out aggressors in conflicts.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius welcomed Austria’s and Switzerland’s decision as a “novelty” and “an important signal for European security.”

“The manner and speed with which we have managed to sign up 19 states shows firstly our joint realisation of the need for solid European air defence and secondly it’s proof that the initiative has been drawn up well, not as a military alliance but as a procurement cooperation,” he told reporters.

Blow to France

The move is also a blow to French efforts to rally European countries around an air defence system based solely on European technology.

The countries of the ESSI intend to purchase mostly American and Israeli armour off-the-shelf. In response, France brought together four European countries in June, including Hungary and Estonia, to sign a letter of intent to purchase the French Mistral 3 ground-based air defence system.

However, Amherd said it was still to be determined which particular air defence system Switzerland would purchase.

Leopard-2 tanks 

Beyond the issue of air defence, the partners discussed the situation in Ukraine. The Swiss Federal Councillor reiterated that Switzerland had turned down the request to release 96 Leopard-1 tanks for export to Ukraine as weapon deliveries would conflict with its neutrality.

However, she said there had been progress on the matter of selling back 25 Leopard-2 tanks to Germany on condition that they would not be used in Ukraine. The tanks will help Germany replenish its equipment as it had previously passed on tanks to Ukraine.

“The National Council has greenlighted the retirement of the tanks. The Council of States will probably debate this issue in autumn. The Federal Council supports retiring the tanks and selling them back to Germany,” Amherd said.

All three countries also reaffirmed their concerns about the tense political situation in the Western Balkans where Serbia and Kosovo have been clashing over the rights of the Serb minority in North Kosovo.

“Upon request from Austria, we’re currently reviewing if we can increase our engagement within the boundaries of our military mandate to help ease the burden,” Pistorius announced.

Source : Euractiv