Austria celebrates its national holiday on the 26October, which is a public holiday that commemorates Austria´s Declaration of Neutrality in 1955. As a neutral country, Austria is prohibited to conclude in any military alliances and to permit foreign military bases on its territory. Neutrality is deeply rooted in the mindsets of the Austrian population and has been tied to Austria´s freedom since the 1950’s. However, how can Austria stay neutral faced with challenges like the Ukraine war, economic crises and climate change. Does the country have to reevaluate its neutrality in the 21st century?
The story on how Austria became neutral, goes back to the 1950s and a neutrality agreement, which is still in place. As a consequence of the allied occupation after the second world war, Austria signed the Moscow memorandum, a political document, in which Austria promised to adapt a statue of neutrality, leaning on the Swiss model. After signing the state treaty, of which the neutrality was a precondition, the allied forces were withdrawn. On the 26October 1955 the neutrality was enacted as a constitutional act of parliament, forbidding Austria to become part of a future war, nor get involved in future conflicts. Austria would not join a military alliance, neither NATO nor the Warsaw Pact. The country committed itself to maintain and defend its neutrality. For Austria, neutrality was a means of recovering its sovereignty, because East and West only left Austria after their security demands had been met. It was increasingly supplemented with an active foreign policy. Since 1965, the 26October is a national day.
In the years after 1955, Austria has pursued a policy of active neutrality, Vienna not only became a mediator between east and west, it is also a location for various international organisations and a number of important summits took place on Austria’s neutral territory. The country sees its role as a peacemaker and intermediary. Vienna got a reputation as a reliable, impartial place for international diplomacy. Neutrality was meant as a policy instrument to regulate and restrict the use of military force in international relations.
Neutrality has helped Austria develop a strong identity for the first time since the First World war, which is why Austrians across the political spectrum are still in support of neutrality and proud of the independent foreign policy. Neutrality is still very strongly associated with freedom and independence, a part of our national identity, which school children are already made aware of.
However, how has this concept been affected by memberships in various international organisations, like the EU and NATO.
Austria’s neutrality has changed a lot since becoming a member of the European Union. The accession of Austria to the European Union in 1995 was a transition from forty years of permanent neutrality to new relations with European partners. In order for Austria to become part of the European Union there had to be fundamental constitutional changes. Some argue that the meaning of neutrality became irrelevant after joining the EU. Others argue that the concept of military neutrality is compatible with the Security Policy of the European Union and that Austria has become more integrated into the European Union´s security framework.
Austria has regarded permanent neutrality compatible with being a member of the European Union and can fully participate in the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Action which are taken within the framework are not in conflict with the status of neutrality. Permanent neutrality was modified and became a so called “engaged neutrality”. Neutral states are not forced to participate in territorial defense, however, they are supposed to engage in crisis management and collective security.
Over the decades the spirit of neutrality has become something of a civic religion, even though a lot has changed since the Ukraine war.
Since Austria is neutral, it cannot be a member of any military alliances, like NATO. However, Austria partners with NATO in various capacities, supporting Ukraine with non-lethal weapons, protective gear and humanitarian assistance.
After the Russian invasion, there were some voices in the population calling for accession to NATO. The Russian invasion of Ukraine resulted in a change of opinion in Nordic countries on the question of neutrality. The war prompted Sweden and Finland to abandon their historic non-alignment and to apply for a NATO membership.
Nonetheless, when asked, the majority of the Austrian population still believes that our country should remain neutral and Chancellor Karl Nehammer stated that “Austria was neutral, Austria is neutral, Austria will also remain neutral”.
What does this all mean for the future of Austria? In the course of time, Austria’s position and the meaning of neutrality have undergone some changes, going hand in hand with alterations of the constitution. Depending on policies and the membership of different international organisations, Austria’s neutrality has been interpreted differently. However, there does not need to be a contradiction between EU integration and our neutrality. The Republic of Austria can be part of a larger economic and political structure and maintain its military neutrality. However, Austria has an “engaged neutrality”, this implies that the country cannot stay silent, when it comes to war or international conflicts. Austria should take an active part in international cooperation to prevent international conflicts.
Austria should adapt to new situations and work intensively together with the EU and its members, because Austria’s future lies in the European Union. If the EU does not collaborate and help each other, there will be new problems appearing on the horizon. In the face of different crisis Europe needs to be strong and united, our identity can be supported with common goals and strategies. Only then can Austria´s neutrality be an asset and serve as a political and strategical guideline for foreign relations. Austria’ role should be the one of a mediator and as a neutral country a place for dialog.