‘Neutral’ Europe pulls out as Finns, Sweden advance towards NATO

BERLIN — As Finland and Sweden take steps to join NATO, the list of ‘neutral’ countries in Europe appears to be shrinking.

Like the two Scandinavian countries, other countries joined the European Union on the promise of economic and political unity without taking sides in the East-West divide that lasted after the end of the Cold War.

But security concerns over Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine changed the calculus for Finland and Sweden, who have long espoused neutrality, and caused other traditionally “neutral” countries to rethink what that term really means to them. Finland said it will decide on NATO membership in the coming days, while Sweden could follow suit as public opinion in both Scandinavian countries has grown in favor of membership.

While EU members scramble to bail each other out in the event of an external attack, the promise has largely remained on paper as NATO’s power overshadows the bloc’s own notions of collective defense.

Yet Turkey could still pour cold water on the NATO ambitions of both Finland and Sweden. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the NATO member’s president, said his country has “no favorable view” of the idea because of alleged Nordic support for Kurdish militants and others Turkey considers terrorists.

“This is the most important thing about neutrality: it means different things to different people,” says historian Samuel Kruizinga of the University of Amsterdam.

Here’s a look at some of the countries that have incorporated “neutrality” into their laws or that generally considered themselves neutral in the confrontation between the United States and Russia and their respective affiliates. Austria, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta are EU members that have not joined NATO, and Switzerland has stayed with both.

SWITZERLAND

Switzerland, arguably Europe’s most well-known neutral country, has enshrined neutrality in its constitution, and Swiss voters decided decades ago to stay out of the EU. But the government has gone to great lengths in recent weeks to explain its concept of neutrality after rallying behind EU sanctions against Russia – and Swiss neutrality is now being analyzed almost daily in the local media.

It is unlikely that Switzerland will stray further from its neutrality: the government has already asked Germany not to transfer Swiss military equipment to Ukraine.

The populist, right-wing party that holds the largest number of seats in parliament is hesitant about taking further action against Russia, and the Swiss fiercely protect their role as a mediator for rival states and as a hub of humanitarian action and human rights. Neutrality helps improve that reputation.

AUSTRIA

Austria’s neutrality is an important part of its modern democracy: As a precondition for the Allies’ departure from the country and the ability to regain independence in 1955, Austria declared itself militarily neutral.

Since the beginning of the Russian war in Ukraine, Chancellor Karl Nehammer has struck a good balance regarding Austria’s position. He has maintained that the country has no plans to change its security status, while at the same time stating that military neutrality does not necessarily mean moral neutrality – and that Austria strongly condemns Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

IRELAND

Ireland’s neutrality has long been a bit of a gray area. Prime Minister Micheal Martin summed up the country’s position earlier this year as: “We are not politically neutral, but we are militarily neutral.”

The war in Ukraine has reopened the debate over Ireland’s neutrality. Ireland has imposed sanctions on Russia and sent non-lethal aid to Ukraine in response to the invasion.

Ireland has participated in European Union battlegroups – part of the bloc’s efforts to harmonize its militaries.

Kruizinga, who contributed to a Cambridge History of the First World War on neutrality, suggested that the more similar EU and NATO memberships are, the better it is for the bloc to “depict itself as a geopolitical power.”

MALTA

Under Malta’s constitution, the small Mediterranean island is officially neutral and follows a policy of “non-alignment and refusal to participate in any military alliance”. A poll commissioned by the State Department, published two weeks before the Russian invasion, found that a vast majority of respondents supported neutrality — and only 6 percent opposed it.

The Times of Malta newspaper reported on Wednesday that during a state visit, Ireland’s Higgins emphasized the idea of ​​”positive” neutrality and joined Maltese President George Vella in condemning the war in Ukraine.

CYPRUS

Cyprus’s relations with the United States have grown significantly over the past decade, but any idea of ​​NATO membership remains off the table — at least for now.

The president of the ethnically divided island nation said on Saturday that “it is far too early” to even consider such a move that would invariably meet the strong opposition of rival Turkey.

Many Cypriots – especially those on the political left – continue to blame NATO for the de facto partition of the island after Turkish troops invaded in the mid-1970s. Turkey was a NATO member at the time — and the alliance did nothing to prevent the military action.

Tough NATO member Britain has two sovereign military bases in Cyprus, which house a sophisticated listening post on the east coast, operated by American personnel.

Cyprus also wants to maintain a veneer of neutrality and has allowed Russian warships to resupply Cypriot ports, although that privilege was suspended after the war in Ukraine started.

Menelaus Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus; Jill Lawless in London; Emily Schultheis in Vienna; and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.

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