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World Economic Forum

Swiss troops prepared for anything at the World Economic Forum in Davos

Swiss troops are using the gathering of world leaders to prepare for a worst-case scenario of unrest across the region if the euro collapses

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 5:57am

Davos is on a war footing.

As snipers fan out over the rooftops of the Alpine resort and the Swiss army rolls kilometres of barbed wire through the town, officers have more than the security of delegates in mind.

They are also using the experience of protecting the World Economic Forum to prepare for a worst-case scenario: chaos sparked by a collapse of the euro.

At their annual exercise in September, the Swiss army drilled for a conflict between two fictitious neighbouring states in crisis. The challenge was figuring out how to turn Switzerland into a fortress that could keep out the flood of refugees a conflict would send its way.

The annual summit at Davos provides a real-world chance to explore such preparations.

"Rising nationalism in Europe is a trend that needs to be monitored," Major General Jean-Marc Halter, 54, Switzerland's second-highest ranking officer who took charge of the war game and is overseeing security at Davos, said in the Swiss capital, Bern. "It's the army's job to protect the country against all possible security threats."

While Switzerland hasn't seen conflict since the Sonderbund civil war of 1847, Davos has provided a chance to demonstrate military readiness ever since late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat attended the forum in 1985. About 3,300 troops will protect government heads this year and secure the airspace in a 46 kilometre radius around the village.

The five-day event, which started yesterday, is the single biggest operation executed by the Swiss army this year.

"In Davos we gain insight into the effectiveness of our training, procedures and chain of command," said Halter, adding that instability on Europe's periphery is "a scenario that needs to be thought through".

Switzerland is right not to be complacent, said James Galbraith, a professor of government and business relations at the University of Texas, who warns of a potential "explosion of violence" on the continent.

"Europe is still heading toward a social and human crisis," he said. "In Greece, there's already a breakdown of public order. You have the rise of an essentially fascist organisation that's harassing immigrants."

If Spain, plagued by regional divisions, leaves the euro, the country could break apart, said Galbraith, who last year wrote Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis.

"These things have the potential to escalate very rapidly, which is what we saw in Yugoslavia", where more than 120,000 people died after the state disintegrated in 1991, Galbraith said. "When I speak of Yugoslavia, it's to remind people that advanced societies have the potential for advanced levels of violence."

More than 16 kilometres of barbed wire help deter most attacks on Davos and thwart the attentions of anti-globalisation activists. Still, "there is a certain potential for violence that can't be ignored", said Halter.

The risk that civil unrest in Europe would trigger a flood of refugees into Switzerland is nevertheless slim, said Anand Menon, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London and professor of west European politics at the University of Birmingham. Wide-scale migration requires "something cataclysmic", said Menon, who sees Islamic terrorism as a bigger threat, especially since France's intervention in Mali.

While the potential for the euro to collapse shouldn't be taken lightly, Switzerland doesn't have much to fear, according to Galbraith of Texas University.

"The prospect of a few Greek refugees turning up in Switzerland shouldn't be particularly alarming," he said. "Some of the unsavoury characters descending on Davos strike me as capable of far more damage."


World Economic Forum Landmarks

1979 - The Forum becomes the first NGO to initiate a partnership with China's economic development commissions.

1988 - Prime Ministers Andreas Papandreou of Greece and Turgut Ozal of Turkey embark on a peace initiative, setting up a crisis "hot-line" and vowing to avoid war.

1994 - Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat talk over the delayed Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho and one aide talked of "an atmosphere of compromise".

1999 - United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan announces the Global Compact, to give "a human face to the global market".

2001 - Microsoft boss Bill Gates pledges US$100 million to help develop an African Aids vaccine.

2002 - The Forum provides a platform for the creation of a Disaster Resource Network, using engineering and transportation firms to assist relief efforts.

2005 - Actress Sharon Stone raises US$1 million in five minutes for malaria at Davos, while the UK's Tony Blair joins Bono and Bill Gates to pledge aid to Africa.

2006- The dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions, militant attacks on oil facilities in Nigeria and Russia's gas disputes with its neighbours raised the profile of energy supply security.