When Russia invaded Ukraine, heated controversy broke out in Austria over its neutrality. In May 2022 around 40 military, economic and literary figures, including the influential novelist Robert Menasse, published an open letter calling for a ‘serious, nationwide discussion’ (1). Russia’s aggression, the signatories wrote, made remaining neutral ‘not only unsustainable, but dangerous’. They didn’t suggest that Austria follow Finland and Sweden into NATO but they didn’t rule it out either.
Since then, local mainstream media have fuelled the ongoing debate over Austrian foreign policy. What lies ahead? Should the country supply weapons to Ukraine, allow the transit of military equipment, train Ukrainian soldiers or join demining operations? Is Vienna’s neutrality, a cornerstone of its international posture since 1955, on shaky ground?
Statements from the four major parties of the National Council (the lower house of parliament) ‒ the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), the Greens and the far-right national conservative Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) ‒ suggest that neutrality still has a rosy future. After Russia rolled into Ukraine, Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) declared, ‘Austria was neutral, Austria is neutral, and Austria will also remain neutral. As far as I’m concerned, the discussion ends there’ (2). Apart from the liberals of the New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS), parliament’s smallest party, no one openly questions the status quo. And polls suggest that the usual 70-80% of the population supports it.
In May 2022 around 40 leading figures, including novelist Robert Menasse, published an open letter calling for a ‘serious, nationwide discussion’. Russia’s aggression, the signatories wrote, made remaining neutral ‘not only unsustainable, but dangerous’
But what exactly does this neutrality look like? Defenders and opponents alike admit that, in practice, the rigid rule gets bent. For decades, Austria’s governments have tolerated NATO planes in their airspace, just as they allowed American tanks passage during the 1991 Gulf war.
Behind the façade of a steadfast principle, the concept of neutrality has evolved. Like Germany, Austria was divided into four occupied zones after the second world war. It dodged partition (the fate of its larger neighbour) by hammering out a deal with the Soviet Union in spring 1955, which guaranteed the country full sovereignty in exchange for a promise of ‘permanent neutrality’. Called the Moscow Memorandum, the pledge was a prerequisite for a state treaty brokered with the Soviet Union, US, UK and France that codified the country’s independence (3). Parliament passed the Constitutional Law on the Neutrality of Austria that October, and the Allied troops withdrew.
More than just military alliances
Germany could have taken a similar path. In 1952 Stalin proposed that the Western powers trade reunification for a commitment to remain neutral. The offer was seriously considered by some leaders of the Christian Democratic Union (the CDU, which governed the Federal Republic at the time), including Jakob Kaiser, then minister of All-German Affairs. But Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the US both resisted. West Germany joined NATO the same year that Austria pledged its permanent neutrality.
The era’s debates over neutrality went beyond military alliances; in both Austria and Germany they touched on economic policy as well. The CDU’s leftist faction took the middle road between Anglo-Saxon capitalism and a Soviet-style planned economy: its 1947 Ahlen Programme called for nationalising key sectors under the banner of ‘socialism through Christian responsibility’. Adenauer and the Allied Powers worked to muzzle supporters so as to keep West Germany’s major businesses in private hands ‒ especially in those of Nazi collaborators and profiteers like the Quandt (BMW), Porsche-Piëch (Volkswagen) and Flick families (4).
Austria’s story could not be more different. Two major ‘nationalisation acts’ socialised banks, essential industries and the energy sector in 1946-47; cooperative and public ownership have stayed more central than in Germany, and to this day, nearly half of Vienna’s apartments belong to cooperatives or public institutions, versus just a quarter in Berlin.
The widely celebrated embrace of neutrality became a pillar of Austria’s identity, and remains associated with one figure: Bruno Kreisky who served as undersecretary of state (1953-59), foreign minister (1959-66) and chancellor (1970-83). A Social Democrat, Kreisky forged a technique later called ‘active’ or ‘engaged’ neutrality (5), visiting Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary in the 1960s ‒ a first for a Western foreign minister. In so doing, he paved the way for Germany’s policy of détente, soon implemented by that country’s chancellor Willy Brandt (1969-74), a close friend of Kreisky’s from their shared exile in Sweden during the second world war.
Kreisky was also instrumental in arranging the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), held between July 1973 and August 1975 in Helsinki and Geneva, as well as in writing the Helsinki Declaration (signed 1 August 1975); the conference and declaration both shaped the détente’s institutional framework. When the CSCE became the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 1995, it set up shop in Vienna, already home to numerous United Nations agencies that Kreisky had helped bring to Austria. Being a diplomatic hub offers Austria not only international kudos but also a sort of ‘negative security assurance’ (a commitment by nuclear-armed states not to carry out a strike on a non-nuclear state).
Support for the non-aligned
The worldly Austrian chancellor took a hands-on approach in the rapprochement between Israel’s government and Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which culminated in the 1993-95 Oslo accords. Like neutral peers such as Sweden ‒ whose leader, the social democrat Olof Palme, was another of Kreisky’s friends ‒ Austria stayed close with the non-aligned movement (see Trying to remake the world, in this issue) and supported its call for a new international economic order. In short, this middle-sized country has played an outsized role in international affairs.
As the Greens, founded in 1986, would later do, the SPÖ (led by Kreisky 1967-83) refused to join the European Economic Community (EEC) for both economic and foreign policy reasons. But Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, another Social Democrat, applied for membership in 1989. In its opinion on Austria’s application, published in July 1991, the European Commission lamented ‘rigidities’, ‘definite tendencies towards corporatism’ and the public sector’s ‘relatively low’ productivity, all of which would ‘threaten the [country’s] competitiveness’. It also deemed Austria’s neutrality a ‘specific problem’.
After Austria joined the EU (1995), the government largely laid these reservations to rest: it launched a massive privatisation plan in the 1990s and 2000s and complied with the EU’s structural adjustment programme, sacrificing its relative economic independence in the process.
Furthermore, despite its neutral stance, Vienna committed to full and active participation in the EU’s common foreign and security policy (CFSP). Although the ‘Irish clause’ of the Treaty on European Union states that the European defence policy ‘shall not prejudice the specific character of [that] of certain Member States’, in practice Austria joined the EU’s combat groups as well as the European Peace Facility, a fund widely criticised for exporting weapons to troubled areas. In 1990 the country’s authorities even unilaterally declared several articles of the Austrian State Treaty obsolete in order to legitimise participation in EU military structures; the Soviet Union cried foul, but Western powers kept mum.
The debate over the foreign policy framework came back with a vengeance with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Various interpretations of the neutrality principle coexist within the ÖVP-Green government. For instance, defence minister Klaudia Tanner (ÖVP, conservative) opposes helping Ukrainian demining operations, while federal president Alexander Van der Bellen, former Green Party member and armed forces commander-in-chief, openly supports it. All parties currently in the government do see eye to eye on one objective: the massive rearmament of the Austrian armed forces, whose budget is to double by 2025.
Europe as an ‘armed peace project’
Outside of the main parties, discussions go even further. Economic lobbyist Günther Fehlinger leads a small minority demanding that Austria join NATO, a campaign that isn’t gaining much popular or political traction. Other neutrality opponents call for shoring up European defence systems and increasing Austrian involvement in them. Robert Menasse, for example, told me he would like to see a sovereign Europe as an ‘armed peace project’ prepared for self-defence – but for this to be possible, the ‘myth of Austrian neutrality’ would have to be dispelled. Menasse opposes Austrian participation in NATO because it could drag the country into conflicts between superpowers. His goal is quite the opposite: to outgrow dependence on the US.
For neutrality supporters ‒ like Gerald Oberansmayr, of Solidar-Werkstatt Österreich (Solidarity Workshop), a Linz-based pacifist organisation ‒ further integration with an increasingly militarised Europe that could behave like an imperial and neocolonial power is not the answer.
University of Vienna political scientist Heinz Gärtner also leans towards a diplomatically sovereign Europe. An advocate for returning to engaged neutrality, in March 2014 he had proposed an Austria-like neutral status for Ukraine, to avoid an impending war; not long after, Henry Kissinger suggested the same. This stance, which then foreign minister Sebastian Kurz made government policy in 2014, was soon abandoned ‒ under NATO pressure, Gärtner thinks.
The golden age of engaged neutrality has clearly passed. Granted, Austria played a major role in establishing UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) during the 2010s, against NATO’s wishes. But on most other issues the country has kept in step with EU and NATO positions. The Ukrainian government’s March 2022 offer of a ceasefire agreement, which would have entailed giving up its application for NATO membership, did not get active support in Vienna. And Austria did not engage with efforts from Turkey, Israel, Brazil, India and several African countries to end the fighting.
And yet rising tensions between the West, on one hand, and Russia and China, on the other, plus the threat of a nuclear face-off mean that European countries appear both independent and trustworthy to their non-aligned Southern counterparts. As Heinz Gärtner points out, ‘thinking in terms of blocs has always blocked thinking.’ Rather than ramping up a new arms race – be it within the Atlantic framework or the European one – he suggests investing in institutions, along the lines of the OSCE, that can bridge blocs.
Austria was once an expert at such bridgebuilding. Now it’s more focused on walking the fine line between formal neutrality and integration into Western military bodies. Last June Chancellor Nehammer announced that his country would participate in Sky Shield, the air defence project developed by European NATO members. This, while celebrating neutrality almost in the same breath.
https://mondediplo.com/2023/09/07austrian Austria: neutral for how much longer?, by Fabian Scheidler (Le Monde diplomatique