Why does Switzerland need a maritime strategy?

Lake Constance, Lake Geneva, Lake Lucerne – Switzerland has many lakes. But as a landlocked nation, surrounded by five other countries in the centre of Europe, it has no direct access to the sea. On 2 June 2023, the Federal Council adopted Switzerland’s Maritime Strategy 2023–27. The sustainability of marine ecosystems, the maritime economy and Swiss-flagged shipping are all important issues for Switzerland. Here’s why.

A boat carries piles of containers. Water in the background.

Switzerland is connected to three seas through its rivers and therefore directly influences marine ecosystems. © FDFA

The seas and oceans are key trade routes, with around 90% of intercontinental trade being transported by sea. As a globally oriented economy, Switzerland is dependent on maritime trade and global logistics chains. Since 1941, Switzerland has also had its own merchant fleet, built up during the Second World War to ensure food supplies. Major shipping and logistics companies are based in Switzerland, operating around 900 vessels. It is one of the largest merchant fleets in the world.

Switzerland also depends on the quality and sustainable use of marine ecosystems, which play a decisive role in solving global challenges such as climate change and food security. Through its rivers, which connect it to the North Sea, the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Black Sea, Switzerland also directly influences these ecosystems.

Five thematic priorities

Switzerland’s maritime strategy aims to provide a comprehensive overview of Switzerland’s maritime interests. It serves as a compass for federal policy and improves coherence in the sector. It also serves as a guide for all maritime sector stakeholders in Switzerland.

The strategy was developed in collaboration with various federal departments and partners from the scientific, economic, environmental and social sectors. The cantons were also consulted before drafting commenced.

It is structured around five thematic priorities as follows:

International law

With its globally interconnected economy, Switzerland has an interest in compliance with international law in the maritime sector. It is involved in various forums at the global level to ensure that treaties are implemented correctly and that the relevant legal provisions are developed.

Switzerland will focus its engagement primarily on issues relevant to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals. The peaceful settlement of disputes must also be strengthened, in particular through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

Foam and waves to illustrate one of the priorities of Switzerland's maritime strategy.
Switzerland is committed to a rules-based order for the governance of the seas. © FDFA

Maritime economy

Both consumers and industry depend on the maritime economy, which is at the heart of global value chains. Switzerland plays a global role in the maritime sector. Indeed, Swiss companies are important service providers in the field of global maritime transport, but also in chartering and in the transit of goods. The strategy aims to improve the economic framework conditions in the maritime sector, in particular in the field of taxation (introduction of a tonnage tax) and the attractiveness of nautical professions.

Three people watch a boat carrying containers.
Around 90% of intercontinental trade is being transported by sea. © FDFA

Marine environment and social affairs

Switzerland is committed to combating pollution and to the sustainable development of the oceans – whether it is ecological, economic or social. The objectives and measures set out in the maritime strategy are intended in particular to help strengthen international cooperation in areas such as the preservation of marine biodiversity, combating plastic pollution, and climate protection. For example, by working within the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on Fisheries and the International Whaling Commission to strengthen controls on the legal and sustainable use of marine resources.

In the strategy, the Federal Council also reaffirms that Switzerland will support the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions from global shipping by 2050 within the framework of the International Maritime Organisation. Switzerland also aims to underscore the importance it attaches to the management of its major transboundary rivers, which flow into the sea.

Achieving net zero in the shipping sector

Because ships cross national borders, shipping emissions are not included in the national targets under the Paris Agreement. However, the shipping sector still accounts for a significant proportion of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: with no less than 90% of the world's goods transported by sea, merchant shipping is responsible for around 2.5% of total emissions. The Federal Council believes that harmonised international rules are needed in order to decarbonise global shipping. Switzerland therefore supports the efforts of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to cut GHG emissions from shipping and is committed to seeking a coordinated global solution: carbon reduction targets should be aligned to the Paris targets, with the shipping sector achieving net zero by 2050.

Marine sciences and research

Research on the seas and oceans plays an essential role in understanding and managing our planet’s climate system. In Switzerland, marine scientists are particularly active in the fields of modelling, biodiversity and ecology. Polar research is also an internationally recognised area of Swiss expertise. However, this expertise is not sufficiently recognised on the world stage and needs to be promoted.

Switzerland also aims to promote access to research vessels for the Swiss scientific community and encourage greater participation in international projects and expeditions.

Three scientists handle equipment on a boat and wear yellow helmets on their heads.
Swiss polar research is internationally recognised. Here a plankton net is used in a study on microplastics in Antarctica. © University of Basel/Patricia Holm

Swiss-flagged vessels

Swiss-flagged vessels used for commercial navigation are in service all over the world. They are owned by Swiss private companies and operated by Swiss shipowners. However, the legislation on commercial shipping under the Swiss flag, enacted in 1953, is partly obsolete. It no longer takes sufficient account of current needs and circumstances and is no longer internationally competitive.

As a result, the Swiss flag is now flown by only a few Swiss-owned commercial vessels. The revision of maritime law aims to make the Swiss flag more attractive for the Swiss commercial fleet by modernising it, in particular by opening up the conditions for registration, reforming sanctions with a more flexible system, incorporating existing monitoring measures into the law and ensuring that high environmental standards are met, at a minimum in line with international requirements. The aim is to create an attractive flag with a reliable regulatory framework.

The provisions relating to international recreational boating and those relating to international Rhine navigation must also be updated, in particular to facilitate the registration of this type of vessel.

A black and red cargo ship with four chimneys flies the Swiss flag.
The ships under the Swiss flag are owned by Swiss private companies and operated by Swiss shipowners. © Reederei Zürich AG

Coherent foreign policy

The maritime strategy is based on the objectives set out in Switzerland's foreign policy strategy, in which the Federal Council defines a general orientation. This is based on a current analysis of the global context and of developments and trends that may have an impact in the future.

In a cascading approach, Switzerland's priorities are translated into geographical and thematic strategies.

Swiss foreign policy: strategies and key aspects

Geographical strategies

Thematic strategies


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