Russia proposed during the peace talks that Ukraine commit to neutrality, just as the war has led other European states to question its merits. Majorities in Finland and Sweden now support NATO membership. “There is no return to a past of illusory neutrality”, former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt argued. “The choice now is between staying in a slightly uncertain in-between or recognizing a new reality and taking the leap in full [Nato] membership.” The Austrians are also reflecting on their neutrality in a Europe forever disrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Austrian neutrality, like that of Finland, is a product of the Cold War. When in April 1955, a delegation led by Chancellor Julius Raab flew to Moscow to negotiate the end of the Allied occupation of Austria, neutrality was the price to be paid by his government. On October 25, 1955, the last Allied troops left Austrian soil; a day later, the country’s parliament enacted the Declaration of Neutrality, committing Austria to “perpetual neutrality” and preventing the country from joining “military alliances”.
Ten years later, October 26 was declared Austria’s national holiday. Neutrality has become part of Austria’s perception of itself as an “island of happiness” – as Pope Paul VI described it to Austrian President Franz Jonas in 1971 – and a bridge between East and West. After the Cold War, Austria joined the EU along with Sweden and Finland in 1995. While these two countries are now NATO “enhanced opportunity partners” – the closest relationship outside of Membership – Austria remains on the periphery of the alliance as part of the larger, looser Partnership for Peace. Austrian military operations abroad have been limited to peacekeeping missions in the Golan Heights, Lebanon and the Balkans.
[See also: Nato needs a new strategy fast]
NATO membership has its supporters in Austria, particularly on the center-right, and their position has been invigorated by Russia’s war against Ukraine. Andreas Khol, a conservative People’s Party great and its 2016 presidential candidate, argued in a recent op-ed that the Ukrainian case shows how “a neutral or non-aligned state stands alone when attacked. No one would rush to his aid”. Only those who are part of a military alliance would ultimately be protected, he said. Austria “must choose between joining NATO or cooperating with an EU army”.
Yet even in a changing Europe, Khol’s support for NATO membership remains a niche opinion. Three-quarters of Austrians support neutrality and more than 80% oppose NATO membership. Austria came out strongly in favor of Ukraine and against Russian invasion, but unlike Sweden and Finland, its leaders quickly ended any talk of abandoning neutrality. Chancellor Karl Nehammer of the People’s Party recently put it this way: “Austria was neutral, Austria is neutral and Austria will also remain neutral.”
[See also: Security politics is energy politics, as Germany’s Greens understand]
Support for neutrality spans the political spectrum. “Neutrality has no expiry date,” wrote Pamela Rendi-Wagner, leader of the Social Democratic Party, in response to Khol, “and it has offered Austria security for 67 years.” Questioning Khol’s view that staying out of NATO leaves neutral states exposed, Rendi-Wagner argued that neutrality prevents countries like Austria from being sucked into conflicts between military alliances then that the United States, Russia and China were vying to preserve or expand their spheres of influence. “Neutral states do not pose a threat to the major powers,” she concluded, “and that strengthens our security.”
Content from our partners
NATO membership remains a nonstarter in Austrian politics. The Declaration of Neutrality is enshrined in the constitution; its repeal would require a two-thirds majority in parliament, which currently does not exist. The Austrian army is also embarrassingly weak; defense expenditure represents only 0.74% of its GDP. While the government plans to raise it to 1%, that would still be well below the 2% target set for NATO members, let alone the 2.5% that analysts say is needed to bolster the Austrian army to the point where it could effectively defend the country in the event of an invasion. The Austrian armed forces are little more than a natural disaster response unit.
With the end of neutrality on the table, the debate in Austria is more about meaning: the distinction between military and political as well as active and passive neutrality. Vienna is the third homeland of the United Nations and yet Austria has presented no initiative likely to end the war or bring about a ceasefire in Ukraine, historian Oliver Rathkolb recently wrote (close to the social- Democrats). Rathkolb accused Austria of “hiding behind the EU” and abandoning the kind of “active policy of neutrality” that characterized the Bruno Kreisky era in the 1970s, when Vienna hosted talks on the limitation of armaments between East and West, challenged the Soviet Union on its human rights. human rights violations and mediated between the West and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
That Vienna is hosting talks on the Iran nuclear deal contradicts the claim that, after Kreisky, Austria withdrew from the world. He wears his neutrality like a comfortable but tired pair of shoes that he struggles to throw off. Even if the war in Ukraine pushes Finland and Sweden to join NATO, it is unlikely that Austria will do the same. Abandoning neutrality would require a fundamental overhaul of Austrian national identity for which the country is ill-prepared. The question is rather whether Austria can once again become a neutral state in the heart of Europe.
[See also: Finlandisation is not an option for Ukraine]