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.

FOR MEMBERS: How Austria could be impacted by the Ukraine crisis

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.

READ ALSO: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

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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‘No country is an island’: Is it time Austria abandoned neutrality?

As the war in Ukraine continues, questions are starting to surface about Austria’s defence capabilities - especially regarding Austria’s permanently neutral status. Does neutrality protect Austria - or are things in need of a shakeup?

'No country is an island': Is it time Austria abandoned neutrality?

As a neutral country, Austria is not a member of a global military alliance and is committed to a stance of engaged neutrality. 

But Austria’s position is now being called into question following the recent publication of an open letter to Austria’s Federal President, Federal Government and National Council. 

READ MORE: Majority of Austrians reject joining NATO

The letter was initiated by co-founder of the New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS) and publishing manager Veit Dengler, and former Supreme Court President and ex-NEOS politician Irmgard Griss. Supporters include military and economic experts, as well as Austrian authors and former ambassadors.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Austria’s politicians have held the line that Austria is a neutral country and always will be.

But it remains to be seen how that will look amid changing security concerns across Europe.

Here’s what you need to know.

What was in the open letter?

The open letter called for “a serious, nationwide discussion about Austria’s future security and defence policy in light of the war in Ukraine and the adoption of a new security doctrine”.

The letter, which was published in German and English, said: “Our neutrality – interpreted very flexibly in practice – was never checked for its current expediency, but raised to the supposedly untouchable myth. 

“As an EU member and participant in the EU’s common security and defence policy, Austria is already obliged to show solidarity. Given the current threat, there needs to be a debate without blinkers.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Austria in NATO?

Martin Senn, Professor of International relations at the University of Innsbruck and Lecturer at the Vienna School of International Studies, told The Local that he approves of the letter and that it’s time for Austria to have a discussion about defence.
Senn said: “It makes a very important point that the government should think hard about how Austria’s security can be maintained in the long term.
“Security and defence has always been a marginal issue in Austria, and it should change. In my view, it’s important for Austria to come to terms with the tensions between neutrality and solidarity in Europe. 
“For example, what would Austria do in the case that another EU country was attacked? This then leads to the question of what type of armed forces do we need.”

The authors of the letter called for the creation of an independent group of experts to lead a debate on the future of Austria’s security and defence policy, adding that the discussion should be open to all Austrians.

Could Austria’s neutrality be changed?

The short answer is yes, it’s possible for Austria to become a non-neutral country. But the reality is more complex.

From a Federal Government perspective, Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg (ÖVP) and Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner (ÖVP) have all recently reiterated Austria’s commitment to neutrality.

Senn is also sceptical about Austria abandoning its neutral stance any time soon, despite concerns about security in Europe.

He said: “The threshold for abandoning neutrality is high – it would need a two thirds majority in parliament and the population is in favour of neutrality.

“Politicians are in a quagmire because the population has high esteem of neutrality and so political parties won’t invest political capital to change it.” 

READ ALSO: What would an embargo on Russian oil mean for Austria?

However, if a decision was ever made to change Austria’s neutral status, it would involve a similar process to adopting neutrality.

Senn said: “The current legal interpretation holds that other countries would have to be notified but they wouldn’t have any veto power.

“Our neutrality is not an international treaty, it was installed through a national legal act and other countries were notified. Abolishing neutrality would work in the same way.”

But altering Austria’s neutrality would come down to political and public support, of which there is very little right now.

A recent survey for Austria’s APA press agency revealed only 14 percent of Austrians were in favour of joining NATO and 52 percent believe neutrality protects Austria.

What is the current situation regarding military defence in Austria?

According to the defence policy of the Austrian Armed Forces, the primary objective of the military is the defence of Austria, its people and their livelihoods on the principles of a militia system (a reserve of militarily trained people). 

Austria is also a member of the EU which is covered by Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty – a clause that states all members must provide each other with aid and assistance in the event of armed aggression towards another member. 

Senn said: “Austria could participate in a mutual defence scenario, for example Austria could legally support Poland militarily if it was attacked.

“There is an article in the constitution that says Austria can participate in the common security and defence policy of Europe, which includes militarily.”

There is an exception to the Lisbon Treaty though (known as the Irish Clause) to allow neutral countries like Austria to opt out of providing military support in such a situation. 

Senn said: “Austria can remain neutral if it wants to, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a matter of political determination.”

Another aspect of Austria’s defence strategy is the country’s geographical location in Central Europe – surrounded by NATO member countries and neutral Switzerland.

Senn said: “There is no immediate conventional threat to Austria, but no country is an island and therefore we should think more about what we need to defend Austria and Europe as a whole.”

Austria’s current defence policy, which was published in 2014, states 55,000 soldiers are required to complete the objectives of the Armed Forces. This includes 12,500 soldiers listed in the ÖSS for disaster relief operations in Germany, 100 security experts and 1,100 soldiers posted on overseas missions.

A recent article in Der Standard by Veit Dengler about Austria’s neutrality said: “It is not clear what the mission and the tasks of the army are. 

“It is completely inadequately equipped for a serious defence situation like that in Ukraine. We are not mentally prepared either: we have no consensus that we are part of the alliance called the EU.”

Why is Austria not a member of NATO?

Austria’s long-standing neutrality goes back to the post-World War II years.

In 1955, when the last foreign troops left Austria, parliament adopted the constitutional law on the Neutrality of Austria, committing the country to permanent neutral status.

READ MORE: Why is Austria not a member of NATO?

The law cemented certain provisions from the Austria State Treaty signed by the government and representatives of the allied forces, which paved the way for the foreign armies to leave the country.

As per the Treaty, Austria can’t join a military alliance, allow the establishment of foreign military bases within its borders or participate in a war. However, Austria’s neutrality status was adapted after joining the EU to align with the country’s commitments to the bloc.

Austria has also actively participated in peacekeeping operations in war torn countries, particularly in the Balkans, as part of its commitment to engaged neutrality and cooperation with NATO through the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme.