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UKRAINE

EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Austria in NATO?

Austria's long-standing "neutral" status dictates many of its diplomacy and policies, including when it comes to its military alliances.

A Nato meeting in Brussels. Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY / POOL / AFP
A Nato meeting in Brussels. Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY / POOL / AFP

By now, many people have likely become familiar with the map that shows which European countries are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), an intergovernmental military alliance with 28 European countries and two North American countries. 

In the map, a big white (sometimes grey) area appears right in the middle of Europe: Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland are famously not a part of the alliance. 

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

Austria’s non-membership comes from its long-standing neutrality.

In 1955, when the last foreign troops left Austria a decade after the end of the Second World War, the parliament adopted the constitutional law on the Neutrality of Austria, committing the country to permanent neutral status.

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. 

The Treaty, in turn, was largely based on the Moscow Memorandum signed between Austria and the Soviet Union in 1955. Moscow had set Austria’s perpetual neutrality as a condition of the agreement.

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.  

EXPLAINED: The history behind Austria’s neutrality

In other words, as a neutral country, Austria is not allowed to join NATO, which defines itself as a political and military alliance

Nevertheless, the alpine country is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) organisation, promoting bilateral cooperation. Austria also participates in NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), a forum for dialogue and consultation on political and security-related issues in the Euro-Atlantic region. 

The Austrian military also participates in the United Nations peacekeeping operations and currently has deployments in several countries, including Kosovo (273 soldiers), Lebanon (182) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (174).

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Neutral but not silent

Despite Austria’s neutrality, the country still voices opinions and sanctions other countries. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Austria has sent humanitarian help, including defensive equipment and fuel, to Ukrainians.

As a member of the European Union, the country has also adopted severe sanctions against Russia and condemned the Russian military action in the United Nations. 

Before a trip to Kyiv 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.”

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ENERGY

‘Unimaginable’: Austria prepares to reopen coal power station

As an "emergency measure", Austria is getting ready to reopen a coal-fuelled power station near Graz amid fears there will be disruptions to the gas supply from Russia this winter.

'Unimaginable': Austria prepares to reopen coal power station

At the Mellach coal power plant in southern Austria, spider webs have taken over the conveyor belts, and plants and flowers have sprung up around the vast lot that once stored coal.

The plant, Austria’s last coal-fuelled power station, was closed in the spring of 2020, but now the government – nervous that Russia may cut its crucial gas deliveries further – has decided to get the site ready again in case it’s needed.

“I never would have imagined that we would restart the factory,” Peter Probst, a 55-year-old welder, told AFP during a visit of the plant.

“It’s really sad to be so dependent on gas,” he added.

READ ALSO: How to keep your apartment cool in Austria this summer amid rising energy prices

Europe had been trying to move away from coal in the fight against climate change.

But as Russia has cut gas deliveries in the wake of sanctions the West has imposed on it for the war in Ukraine, European countries are turning back to coal.

Today, the Mellach plant’s white and red chimney stands out amid fields of corn and pumpkins, the city of Graz in the distance.

Inside, the walls are black, and coal dust clings to the doors and railings.

Some 450,000 tonnes of coal were stored at the plant before its closure as Austria’s conservative-Greens coalition aimed to have all electricity come from renewable resources by 2030.

Site manager Christof Kurzmann-Friedl says the plant operated by supplier Verbund can be ready again in “about four months” — just in time to help tackle any gas shortages in winter.

READ MORE: When will you get your cost of living ‘bonus’ payments in Austria?

Welder Peter Probst reacts to the news that the coal-fuelled power plant in Mellach will be reopened. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

“Emergency measure”

Chancellor Karl Nehammer insisted on Monday that the plant would only go online if necessary, while Austria holds on to its goals to reduce emissions.

“It’s really an emergency measure,” the conservative told foreign correspondents at a briefing.

“It’s really something that shows how extraordinary our times are… We must prepare for any eventuality.”

The 230 megawatt power plant would take over from the nearby gas-fired plant, also operated by Verbund, which currently supplies heating to Graz’s 300,000 inhabitants, according to Kurzmann-Friedl.

FOR MEMBERS: EU oil embargo: How will the sanctions impact Austria?

He warned, however, that the site must still be readied, hooking up all the equipment again, in addition to hiring qualified personnel and above all finding enough coal.

Before, the coal mainly came from mines in Poland’s Silesia region, which the Polish government is aiming to shut.

Because coal prices have risen by as much as three times since 2020, the power produced by the plant will also be more expensive, Kurzmann-Friedl said.

Criticism has already flared with the opposition Social Democrats slamming the decision to reactivate the coal plant as “an act of desperation by the Greens”.

“Will the next step be the reactivation of Zwentendorf?” the opposition asked, referring to the country’s only nuclear power plant.

The Alpine nation of nine million people has been fiercely anti-nuclear with an unprecedented vote in 1978 against nuclear energy that prevented the plant from ever opening.

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