Austrian neutrality does not mean disengaging from international affairs. Instead, it demands an intense involvement

Austria’s neutrality occupies a unique space: it mainly concerns military and security issues but still allows for the country to be heavily engaged in international affairs. Heinz Gärtner explains this policy of neutrality and how it could be a model for Ukraine
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, welcomes Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer, before the start of bilateral discussions, 9 April 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine | Alamy

By Heinz Gärtner

Heinz Gärtner is lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna and at Danube University in Krems

09 May 2022

Austria’s neutrality law of 1955 is based on three pillars: no membership in a military alliance, no permanent deployment of foreign troops and no participation in foreign wars. They all concern military and security issues. Austria also commits itself to defend its neutrality “with all means available,” meaning that it is an armed neutrality. Austria’s neutrality is not only enshrined in its constitution but also based on international law.  

The country’s policy of neutrality not only has a military component, it has become an identity issue as well: on average, 85 per cent of Austrians permanently support it. Political parties that wanted to abolish neutrality failed in the past. 

However, there is no neutrality on values. In contrast, Austria’s “engaged neutrality” requires being involved in international affairs. Austria cannot be silent when it comes to war, genocide or massive human rights violations. Therefore, Austria condemned the Russian invasion in Ukraine in strong terms and joined all sanctions of the European Union. 

Austrian neutrality cannot mean staying out of international affairs, but rather demands the opposite: an intense involvement

Austria’s “engaged neutrality” means active participation in international security policy in general, and international peace operations in particular. Austria participates in the EU’s foreign and security policy and crisis management. It is also part of robust deployments such as those within the Nato Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme.

Peace operations are fully compatible with neutrality. Naturally, the fundamental priority of a neutral security policy during security deployments and deployments abroad does not consist of alliance obligations under the commitments of Nato’s Article 5. Neutral states are well suited (in many ways better than other states) to make important contributions to these challenges. 

Thanks to this policy of neutrality, Vienna was chosen as the third United Nations Headquarters and the seat of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), specialised UN agencies such as United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), the secretariats of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) and others. Furthermore, Vienna was the location for negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program (JCPOA) from 2014 to 2015 and from 2021 to 2022. 
Austrian neutrality cannot mean staying out of international affairs, but rather demands the opposite: an intense involvement.  

Like the rest of Europe, Austria decided in the wake of the war in Ukraine to increase its relatively low military budget. This would have been necessary for the Austrian Armed Forces anyway. There was a brief debate after the Russian invasion, triggered by some journalists and one small political party, on whether neutrality would provide sufficient protection for the country if there were an attack. It is a very hypothetical scenario since Austria does not border Russia. 

The Austrian chancellor finished the debate by declaring “Austria remains neutral!” He understands that neutrality has to be credible. This has to be conveyed also in peacetime. There should be no doubt that the neutral state will stay neutral in the case of war and that it has no intention to join a military alliance. There are, in fact, very few examples in history when a credible neutral state has been occupied (e.g. Hawaii in 1893 by the United States), except in the wake of a large scale attack on all states, neutral or not, as during the two World Wars. 

There are very few examples in history when a credible neutral state has been occupied, except in the wake of a large scale attack on all states, neutral or not, as during the two World Wars

The Austrian chancellor used his stance to visit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-April 2022 to support diplomatic talks. Maybe he suggested holding peace talks in Vienna. Austria, with its credible neutrality, would be better suited than Finland or Sweden, both of which are considering Nato membership. Historically, Austria used its neutrality to host high-level summits between the United States and the Soviet Union, including US President John F Kennedy and First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, and US President Jimmy Carter and First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev in 1979. 

Austria as a neutral state participates in the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of the European Union. In the context of this debate, some observers argued that Austria’s membership in the EU would not be compatible with its neutrality, referring to the clause on security obligations (Article 42.7) in the Treaty of Lisbon. According to this clause, Member States must provide each other with “aid and assistance by all means in their power” in case of armed aggression towards a Member State. This includes the promise to use military force. 

As a diplomatic solution, the Austrian model as an alternative for Ukraine has been on the table since 2014

Obligations of assistance without exceptions would turn the EU into a military alliance. However, the Treaty of Lisbon provides exemptions for neutral states (as it does for Nato members). The Treaty includes the so-called Irish Formula, which states that this article “shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States”.

Neutral Member States would not be forced to participate in collective or territorial defence but are rather supposed to be engaged in crisis management and collective security. The Lisbon Treaty provides the basis for crisis management: Article 42.1 refers to this as “peace-keeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter”. 

As a diplomatic solution, the Austrian model as an alternative for Ukraine has been on the table since 2014; this would involve not joining a military alliance and not allowing any foreign troops or militias on its territory. At the same time, Ukraine would be prohibited from joining an alliance with Russia, like Austria was prohibited from joining an alliance with Germany. During the war this idea has become more prominent. Finland cannot serve as a model anymore, because it has lost its status as credible non-aligned state due to its intention to join Nato. 

If the EU by definition became a military alliance, however, EU membership and also neutrality would no longer be an option for Ukraine and other eastern and central European states – those in between Nato and Russia. They would only have the choice between two military alliances: Nato and the EU. 

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