EXPLAINED: The history behind Austria’s neutrality

It is well-known that Austria is a “neutral country”, but what does it actually mean? Here’s what you need to know about Austria’s neutrality.

EXPLAINED: The history behind Austria's neutrality

The story of how Austria came to be a neutral country goes all the way back to the post-war years in the 1950s and a neutrality agreement that is still in place today.

At the end of the Second World War in 1945, Austria was occupied by allied forces and the country was divided into four zones: Soviet in the east (Burgenland and Lower Austria), British in the south (East Tyrol, Carinthia and Styria), American in the west (Salzburg and Upper Austria) and French in the far west (Vorarlberg and North Tyrol).

Vienna was also divided into four allied zones and the centre of the city was declared an international zone where the occupation of allied forces changed every month.

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This situation continued for a decade until the Austrian State Treaty (also known as the Austrian Independence Treaty) was signed by the Austrian government and representatives of the allied forces on May 15th 1955, paving the way for the allied forces to leave the country.

The last foreign troops left Austria on October 26th 1955 and on the same day, the Austrian parliament adopted the constitutional law on the Neutrality of Austria, which committed the Republic to permanent neutrality. Austria has been a neutral country ever since.

What does “neutral” mean?

The Austrian State Treaty declares that Austria can’t join a military alliance, allow the establishment of foreign military bases within Austria or participate in a war.

The status of neutrality is even recognised internationally after Austria notified countries following the signing of the Treaty in 1955.

In December 1955, Austria then joined the United Nations (UN) and Vienna later became the home of the UN’s third headquarters. The United Nations Office at Vienna (UNOV) opened in January 1980, further cementing Austria’s commitment to neutrality.

What does Austrian neutrality mean today?

Today, the Austrian State Treaty is still a part of the Austrian constitution and continues to influence Austria’s political stance on the international stage.

In the decades since the signing of the treaty, Austria has pursued a policy of “active neutrality”, mostly by hosting meetings between the east and the west, as seen recently in the discussions taking place in Vienna to revive a nuclear deal with Iran.

The Austrian Armed Forces has also participated in UN peacekeeping operations since the Federal Constitutional Act on Cooperation and Solidarity in Deploying Units and Individuals Abroad was adopted in 1997.

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Currently, Austria’s largest deployment of peacekeeping troops are in Kosovo (273 soldiers), followed by Lebanon (182) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (174). Smaller deployments are in several other countries, including Mali, Western Sahara and Moldova.

Amid current tensions between Russia, Ukraine and the west, Austria’s neutrality has been brought into the political spotlight.

Before a trip to Kiev with his counterparts from Slovakia and Czech Republic, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said: “Even if Austria is a neutral state from a military point of view, we are not neutral when it comes to violence. 

“When it comes to the territorial integrity of a sovereign state, we will never remain silent, but always stand up for it resolutely.”

Austria and NATO

Austria is not a member of NATO, like other neutral European states such as Finland, Sweden, Ireland and Switzerland. This means Austria is not bound to support NATO in the event of political and military action.

But Austria is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) organisation and participates in NATO’S Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC).

The PfP is a programme to promote bilateral cooperation between partners, which allows members to choose their level of cooperation. The EAPC is a forum for dialogue and consultation on political and security-related issues in the Euro-Atlantic region.

Austria’s continued non-membership of NATO has been a political topic of discussion for decades within the country, but Austria remains committed to the position of neutrality with no signs of joining NATO.

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Is Austria’s Freedom Party a ‘far-right’ party?

As more far-right parties enter power across Europe, we take a closer look at the Freedom Party of Austria.

Is Austria's Freedom Party a 'far-right' party?

On Sunday September 25th, the Freedom Party Austria (FPÖ) came second in the Tyrolean state elections. On the same day, the far right Brothers of Italy party won the national election in neighbouring Italy.

The Brothers of Italy win marks the first time a far right party has been elected into power in Italy since World War II. And in Austria, although the FPÖ didn’t win the Tyrolean vote, their gain came at a loss for the Greens – a typically popular party in Tyrol’s capital, Innsbruck.

This has worried some political commentators, even though the governing Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) in Tyrol has vowed not to form a coalition with the FPÖ

So is the FPÖ actually a far right party? And if so, why?

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What is a far right party?

Right-wing politics typically supports traditional values or returning things to how they were in the past, reports the UK’s Evening Standard

But the definition of a far right party can vary and even be split into two camps.

For some, the term refers to fascist or neo-Nazi political parties, which are authoritarian, ultra-nationalist, and normally openly racist, misogynistic and homophobic.

The far right can also include other parties that sit to the right of a country’s established centre-right. Examples in Europe include France’s National Rally, UKIP in the UK, Alternativ für Deutschland in Germany or the Danish People’s Party. 

Cas Mudde, the influential Dutch politics professor and author of The Far Right Today, says the far right is split into two subgroups – the “extreme right” and the “radical right”.

Mudde argues that the “extreme right” rejects the essence of democracy (such as popular sovereignty and majority rule). Whereas the “radical right” accepts the democratic system but is opposed to fundamental elements of liberal democracy, such as minority rights, the rule of law and the separation of powers.

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What is the background of the FPÖ?

The FPÖ was founded in 1956 as a “Germanic national liberal party with close associations to the Nazis”, and the party’s first two chairmen (Anton Reinthaller and Friedrich Peter) were former SS officers, reports Deutsche Welle.

The party started out as far right before moving towards the centre in the following decades. But in 1986 it moved back towards the far right and adopted an anti-elite, populist political stance.

The FPÖ first entered the Austrian Federal Government in 2000 after then-FPÖ leader Jörg Haider (son of Austrian Nazi Party members) formed a coalition government with the ÖVP. 

This was the first time a party with Nazi origins became part of a European government since the end of the Second World War. It caused outrage across Europe – even resulting in EU sanctions.

Haider then stepped down as head of the FPÖ in February 2000 but the party remained in the federal coalition until 2006.

After leaving the FPÖ, Haider went on to form another party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), but he died in a car crash just 13 days after the 2008 elections.

In 2017, the FPÖ once again entered into a coalition government with the ÖVP, and FPÖ leader Heinz Christian-Strache (of Ibizagate fame – more on that below) became the Vice-Chancellor of Austria.

Once again though, the coalition would be short-lived.

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What is the recent controversy surrounding the FPÖ in Austria?

The FPÖ’s Strache had a spectacular fall from grace in 2019 in an episode that became known as “Ibizagate”.

The scandal can be traced back to a meeting in 2017 on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza between Strache (who was then leader of the FPÖ) and a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch.

Strache was filmed promising the woman state contracts in exchange for helping his party to campaign for elections on an anti-migration, anti-Islam plank.

Strache also discussed the possibility of the woman buying Austria’s most-read tabloid, Kronen Zeitung, and making its editorial line more pro-FPÖ.

He did not know the meeting was a sting and that he was being filmed.

The video surfaced in German media in May 2019 and led to the collapse of the FPÖ-ÖVP coalition government. As well as marked the beginning of the end of former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s political career.

Strache was later convicted of corruption and given a 15-month suspended jail sentence. In July 2022, Strache was acquitted on further corruption charges.

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Does the FPÖ have fascist elements?

An article in Time describes fascism as “a movement that promotes the idea of a forcibly monolithic, regimented nation under the control of an autocratic ruler”.

A quick online search about the FPÖ mostly brings up descriptions including right-wing, populist and national conservative. But there are some alarming stories too.

For example, in 2019, the party published a poem in the town of Braunau (where Adolf Hitler was born), which warned against cultural mixing in Austria and compared immigrants to rats.

An Austrian study also found that the profile of FPÖ voters has hardly changed over the years, stating: “The FPÖ performs above average among men, younger people, workers and people with a lower level of education.” 

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What are the FPÖ’s far right policies?

The FPÖ official website states (in English): “We are committed to Austria’s right to self-determination and to preserving and protecting our view of mankind and society that has matured in our traditions and in our history.”

“Freedom” is listed as the first priority in the party’s policies. In second place is “protecting our homeland of Austria, our national identity and autonomy”.

The party manifesto also states: “Austria is not a country of immigration. This is why we pursue a family policy centred around births.”

Other FPÖ policies focus on a free constitutional state, a market economy, social justice and Austria’s right to self-determination.

The FPÖ has also been a fierce opponent of Covid-19 restrictions in Austria and appeared at many protests that took place, especially in Vienna.

So are they far right?

Yes, the FPÖ fits the profile of a far right political party.

When considering Mudde’s definitions of “extreme right” and “far right”, the FPÖ falls in the latter category.

However, the party was founded on some elements of “extreme right”, and there have been glimpses of that ideology in recent years.