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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‘Taboo in Austrian society’: How women still face barriers accessing abortion

Abortion may be decriminalised in Austria, but there are several hurdles women must go through which can make it incredibly difficult in much of the country.

'Taboo in Austrian society': How women still face barriers accessing abortion

Nobody knows exactly how many women get abortions yearly in Austria, though estimates are around 30,000 a year.

There are no reliable concrete numbers because the procedure is not covered by health insurance in the country, people need to pay for it themselves, and therefore not measured by Statistik Austria.

Optative abortion has been a decriminalised medical procedure since 1975 in Austria. Women can discontinue a pregnancy per choice within the first three months – before the 16th pregnancy week, counting from the date of the last menstrual period.

They must go through a consultation with a doctor but don’t have to disclose the reasons for the abortion. Instead, the consultation will usually decide which abortion method is better for the patient’s case.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Is abortion legal in Austria?

But prices are high, starting at around €350 to €550, which patients must pay themselves. Even finding someone to perform the procedure can be difficult. 

“There is a need for uniform pricing and the assumption of costs by health insurance companies, as well as nationwide offers by clinics that offer abortions (at best both medicinal and surgical, so that those affected have a choice)”, says Anna Maria Lampert, a board member of CHANGES for women a non-profit association in Vienna that assist women with information and financing for abortion procedures.

Lampert explains that some Austrian states have few or no offer of abortion clinics or doctors qualified to make the procedure.

“In Burgenland, there is neither a public hospital nor a private clinic offering abortions. In Vorarlberg, Tyrol and Upper Austria, there is only one doctor in each province, with no backup staffing”, she says.

This also raises costs, as many people need to travel to get the procedure.

According to Austrian law, medical staff can also refuse to participate in abortion based on their personal beliefs, making the practice even more taboo, especially outside of the capital Vienna.

“Abortion is still a big taboo in Austrian society. In rural areas, people don’t get in touch with the topic. CHANGES for women are often either the only contact point for women with unwanted pregnancies or the only ones who treat them with respect and without judgement or prejudice.”

READ ALSO: Violence against women in the spotlight in Austria after horrific killings

Lampert also mentioned that the topic is often depicted in a “very dramatic” way in the media, showing people who get abortions as “traumatised and self-centred”.

“It would be much easier if the political and social environment would react more favourably and accept each individual’s personal decision”, she adds.

Still, women have the right

Even though they need to cover the costs themselves, the fact that people do have a choice to get an abortion – without having to justify their decision – is still a differential in Austria. Especially taking into account the different policies of neighbouring countries.

Feminist collective Ciocia Wienia supports people from Poland and other countries where access to abortion is difficult or impossible in organising a legal procedure in Vienna.

“We provide information about reproductive rights and available forms of abortion in Austria. We help organise travel, accommodation, abortion procedure, and translation. Whenever possible, we offer financial support”, the group – which prefers to work anonymously, told The Local.

The fact that in Austria, abortion is legal and can be done anonymously allows the group to help women get access to the procedure. Even if they are not Austrians nor legal residents.

READ ALSO: Austria’s top court legalises same-sex marriage

“People do not even have to speak German. The clinics we work with speak multiple languages, and our volunteers also assist as translators when necessary. Additionally, people do not have to use their real names at the clinic”, the group tells us.

This was the case with Lilian, who found out she was pregnant while moving back to her home country in South America – where elective abortions are illegal – and came back to Austria to get the procedure anonymously.

“The feeling of insecurity and the lack of legal support made me give up trying to get an abortion in my home country. I had a link to a country where it was legalised, I could have medical support and do it in a respectful way, so I came back”.

She said the process was relatively simple: she found the clinic after an online search, sent them an email and scheduled the appointment. There, she had a private consultation with a doctor who explained her options and how the procedure would go. Then, in less than an hour, everything was done, and she could go home.

“The overall impression is that it is done in a respectful and humane way. There was no judgement at any part of the process, only guidance and an educational part on how to avoid reoccurrence”, she explains to The Local.

Many clinics in Vienna offer abortion and several other reproductive services, including regular gynecologic appointments, orientation for young girls, and contraceptive implants, for example.

Reproductive rights

The activists in Austria demand not only that costs for the procedure be taken by health insurers but also free access to contraceptives and care.

“The ultimate goal of our activism is a total decriminalisation of abortion and free and safe of other reproductive rights, such as emergency contraception, abortion, sterilisation, and anonymous birth”, Ciocia Wienia says.

Anna Maria, with CHANGES for women, agrees that the measures need to start earlier: “to prevent unwanted pregnancies, there needs to be free access to the contraceptive of choice and up-to-date sexual education for all”.

There has been very little political talk about changing medical coverage or reproductive laws in Austria, but the situation in the United States, where a leaked Supreme Court draft document showed the court is now in favour of overturning the ruling that made abortion legal has brought the issue of reproductive rights back to the centre stage worldwide – including in the alpine country.

Useful links

Termination of pregnancy – the federal government
Abortion –
Women’s rights group and feminist collectives – CHANGES for women and Ciocia Wienia