Austria — it’s time to join NATO

Austria — it’s time to join NATO
Опубликовано: Friday, 03 March 2023 09:00

The view that the country can remain neutral, balancing the interests of Russia and the West, while also being part of the West, is no longer morally or politically tenable.

Liam Hoare is the Europe editor for Moment Magazine and author of “The Vienna Briefing” newsletter on Austrian politics and culture.

In many European countries, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to a fundamental rethink of long-standing security and foreign policy doctrines.

Admittedly, the most notable shift, Germany’s Zeitenwende (turning point) has been far from smooth, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz has seemingly tended to do the right thing only after trying other options first. But the fact remains that the country has pivoted away from Russian natural gas and is now donating tanks to the Ukrainian war effort.

Meanwhile, in May, the previously neutral Sweden and Finland formally submitted applications to join NATO; and there are signs that Turkey and Hungary — who have been holding up the ratification process — may now be softening their objections to this Scandinavian surge.

Austria, though, has not yet gone through a fundamental rethink. Yes, it did sign onto the European Union’s sanctions against Russia and its financial aid regime in support of Ukraine, but it has opted out of any military participation, citing its constitutionally anchored “permanent neutrality” — a stance that is no longer feasible.

Austria has neither exported weapons to Ukraine — even though it has 56 aging Leopard 2 tanks ripe for donation — nor has it participated in training Ukrainian forces. Imports of Russian gas are approaching pre-war levels, with 71 percent of Austria’s gas coming from Russia in December. And major Austrian companies like Raiffeisen Bank International and wood manufacturers Kronospan and EGGER remain active in Russia despite sanctions.

A coalition of politicians, diplomats, artists and businesspeople did, however, recently publish an open letter marking the first year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Bemoaning the lack of serious political debate regarding Austria’s security policy, the ad-hoc coalition lamented that “large sections of domestic politics and society have fallen prey to the illusion that Austria can remain as it is,” adding that “important questions about the future of Austria, Europe, and the international order are being neglected.”

But in parliament, no party bar the liberal NEOS has sought to question Austria’s neutral status since the invasion began either. Indeed, the far-right Freedom Party, which currently leads in the polls, has embedded its opposition to European support for Ukraine in its rhetoric. And among the general public, a poll taken in May 2022 — the very month Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership — showed that only 14 percent of Austrians favored doing the same, with a whopping 75 percent opposed.

It’s as though the clocks in Austria stopped dead on February 24, 2022.

The problem is Austria remains shackled to neutrality by the stories it tells itself.

The first of these is that neutrality was the price the country had to pay to end the postwar Allied occupation and regain its independence in 1955.

The second is that neutrality and prosperity — the so-called “economic miracle” of the 1960s — are inherently bound together. That Austria wouldn’t have become a country with Western European living standards were the Soviets still in control of the country’s east.

And a third is that neutrality was the platform that allowed the country to play an outsized role in global affairs in the 1970s, when then-Chancellor Bruno Kreisky interceded in the Middle East peace process and sought to improve relations between the Global North and South.

All of these are more or less true — or, rather, they were.

An Austrian military officer checks looks on before arrival of the Ukrainian President (unseen) in Vienna, Austria, on September 15, 2020 | Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

The fall of the Berlin Wall meant that by 1990, Austria had gone from being a country at Europe’s periphery, on the fortified border between east and west, to one right at the Continent’s political center.

Austrian capital flowed east, Eastern European labor came west, and throughout the decade, the country became a natural destination for refugees fleeing former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević’s genocidal war. In 1995, Austria then joined the EU along with Sweden and Finland and signed up to NATO’s Partnership for Peace — members of its armed forces still participate in the peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina today.

Yet, despite all this, Austria continues to cling to its official permanent neutrality as if the face-off between Europe’s former military blocs — NATO and the Warsaw Pact — were still ongoing and as though it isn’t an EU member. But Austria’s prosperity, security and place in the world is no longer tied to neutrality as the public and political class still seem to think.

Quite the reverse.

Last year, over two-thirds of Austrian exports were sent to fellow EU member countries, and the country’s economic reach into Central and Eastern Europe is both broad and deep. You can’t visit Romania or the Western Balkans, for example, without falling over branches of Raiffeisen or Erste Bank, or without filling your car at an OMV gas station.

It’s time to accept that Austria’s neutrality-linked independent foreign policy went the way of Kreisky when he left office in 1983. And the fact that the U.N. and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, among others, call Vienna home is the legacy of a bygone era. Were Kreisky alive today, perhaps he would have sought to negotiate a Black Sea grain deal, but that role was played by Turkey — not Austria.

Today, on almost all nonmilitary matters, Austria’s foreign policy is the EU’s common foreign policy. The country is totally enmeshed in the Continent’s political and economic structures — but its Euro-Atlantic integration remains only half complete.

No longer a border state, Austria is almost fully surrounded by EU and NATO members — Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Italy. Its military is little more than a natural disaster response unit, and it has effectively outsourced its security to its neighbors.

For Austria, neutrality has become an excuse to sit on its hands and do nothing while NATO supplies Ukraine’s military. The view that it can survive as a neutral country, balancing the interests of Russia and the West, while also being part of the West is no longer morally or politically tenable.

Austria should accept responsibility and join the NATO alliance.

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