While Sweden and Finland are fast-tracking NATO applications, the writer's homeland of Austria continues to cling to longstanding "neutrality" status, sleepwalking through the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The government has the polls on their side. But in reality, it's not our neutrality that protects us.
Growing up in Austria, there's one word we seem to learn to say faster than “mama.” That word is: “neutrality.”
It's a status that apparently we all say we want – just look at recent statements by Austrian Defense Minister Klaudia Tanner: Neutrality is “in the heart of the Austrians,” she said, making it clear once again that this matter is not up for discussion.
For Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, the matter was also always (and forever) clear: “Austria was neutral, Austria is neutral, and Austria will remain neutral,” he said, shortly before he tried to talk Putin to persuade him to find his conscience in Moscow. Putin remained unimpressed, and so were the Austrians.
The Austrian government — and every other party, apart from the liberal NEOS — clings to Austria’s neutral status. They declare the debate over before it has even begun giving one simple reason: the citizens want it that way.
It's geography that matters
And what politician in power would seriously go against the electorate on such a sensitive issue? This was also the opinion expressed by Austria’s Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio on May 18: “The country wants to remain neutral,” he said. But that doesn’t stop the country from showing solidarity and supporting the EU’s sanctions against Russia, for example.
What really protects us is our geographical position.
And it is true: the majority of Austrians are still against joining NATO. According to a poll for the APA news agency, only 14 percent are in favor, while 75% oppose it. When asked whether neutrality still protects us today, 52% answered “yes.” However, 40% do not believe that neutrality protects Austria from threats of war.
After all, 40% of Austrians understand that neutrality alone will not, indeed cannot, protect their homeland. Or, as the Viennese international law expert Ralph Janik aptly put it: What really protects us is our geographical position.
The problem with the amicable way
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a joint press conference following bilateral discussions
Austria is – in positive and negative terms – an island of the blessed. But this “gmiatliche” (amicable) way seems naive in light of the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine and the security policy implications that all of Europe must draw from it. Instead of confronting responsible people with that reality, namely that neutrality in its original form has outlived its usefulness, Austrian politics is hiding behind this concept. They hide behind this fossil, this myth that is cherished in Austria – and yet it is undermined at every opportunity.
After all, since joining the EU, Austria has already reduced its neutrality to core areas – no military alliance, no stationing of foreign troops. In other matters, Austria is ready to participate in the common European foreign and security policy, especially in crisis operations.
And what if the EU is now serious about developing its military structures? It is to be expected that little consideration would be given to the refusal of a small neutral state. How realistic it is for the EU to build military structures parallel to those of NATO – now that Finland and Sweden also want to become NATO members – is another matter. Probably not so much.
So while Sweden and Finland are currently fast-tracking their application in order to place themselves under the protective mantle of NATO, Austria continues to sleepwalk along. Isn’t it disturbing that these two (still) non-aligned countries apparently don’t want to rely on the mutual assistance clause in Article 42 of the EU Treaty (which provides for mutual assistance in the event of an attack, but not for a duty of collective defense)? Instead they prefer to put more trust in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty (the case of alliance). I would say: yes, it is disturbing.
Neutrality has never been examined for its current appropriateness.
Since the format of the “open letter” exists not only in Germany but also in Austria, it is worth mentioning at this point that a few people in my home country have exactly the same thoughts. On May 9, 50 prominent signatories addressed the Federal President and the Federal Government, among others. They called for a “serious, nation-wide discussion on Austria’s security and defense policy future and the adoption of a new security doctrine.”
Neutrality, which has been interpreted very flexibly in practice, has never been examined for its current appropriateness. Instead it had been elevated to the status of a supposedly inviolable myth. Muddling along, another component of Austria’s DNA, is simply no longer an option. But I fear that the government will probably prefer to continue to take care of the supposedly neutral hearts and stay remote from reality.
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