BERLIN — With Finland and Sweden preparing to join NATO, Europe’s list of “neutral” countries appears to be shrinking.
Other countries, like the two Nordic countries, joined the European Union because it promised economic and political union without taking sides in the Cold War-era East-West division.
However, security worries over Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine shifted the arithmetic for Finland and Sweden, both of which have long advocated neutrality, and forced other historically “neutral” countries to reconsider what that term meant to them. Finland has stated that it will make a decision on NATO membership in the next days, and Sweden may follow suit as public opinion in both Nordic nations has shifted toward participation.
While EU countries have pledged to come to each other’s rescue in the event of an external attack, the commitment has mostly remained on paper as NATO’s might has surpassed the bloc’s own concepts of collective defence.
Nonetheless, Turkey has the potential to derail Finland and Sweden’s NATO objectives. The president of the NATO member, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said his country is “not a fan” of the proposal because of suspected Nordic backing for Kurdish insurgents and others that Turkey deems terrorists.
“The essential thing about neutrality is that it implies different things to different individuals,” said University of Amsterdam historian Samuel Kruizinga.
Here are some countries that have established “neutrality” in their legislation or have typically seen themselves as neutral in the standoff between the US and Russia and its affiliates. Austria, Ireland, Cyprus, and Malta are EU members who have not joined NATO, while Switzerland has remained outside of both organisations.
Switzerland is arguably Europe’s most well-known neutral country, with neutrality established in its constitution and Swiss people opting out of the EU decades ago. However, following aligning with EU sanctions against Russia in recent weeks, its administration has been at pains to defend its definition of neutrality, and Swiss neutrality is now discussed practically daily in local media.
Switzerland is unlikely to abandon its neutrality any time soon: its government has already asked Germany not to send Swiss military equipment to Ukraine.
Further sanctions against Russia have been resisted by the populist, right-wing party that controls the largest bloc of seats in parliament, and the Swiss are extremely protective of their status as a mediator between hostile states and a hub for humanitarian aid and human rights. Neutrality aids in developing that reputation.
Austria proclaimed itself militarily neutral in 1955 as a condition of Allied forces leaving the country and the country’s capacity to recover independence.
Chancellor Karl Nehammer has maintained a delicate balance in Austria’s attitude since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine. He has stated that Austria has no plans to change its security status, while also stating that military neutrality does not imply moral neutrality, and that Austria firmly condemns Russia’s activities in Ukraine.
Ireland’s neutrality has long been a hazy subject. “We’re not politically neutral, but we’re military neutral,” Prime Minister Micheal Martin said earlier this year, summarising the country’s attitude.
The conflict in Ukraine has reignited the debate about Ireland’s neutrality. In response to the invasion, Ireland placed sanctions on Russia and supplied non-lethal aid to Ukraine.
Ireland has been a member of European Union battlegroups as part of the bloc’s efforts to unify its armed forces.
Kruizinga, who contributed to a Cambridge History of the First World War on neutrality, believes that the closer the EU and NATO memberships are, the better the bloc may “present itself as a global power.”
The small Mediterranean island of Malta is nominally neutral, according to its constitution, adhering to a policy of “non-alignment and refusal to participate in any military alliance.” A poll commissioned by the Foreign Ministry and released two weeks before Russia’s invasion revealed that the vast majority of respondents favoured neutrality, with only 6% against.
According to the Times of Malta, during a state visit, Ireland’s Higgins emphasised the concept of “constructive” neutrality and joined Maltese President George Vella in opposing the war in Ukraine.
Cyprus’ relations with the US have improved significantly over the previous decade, but NATO membership is still off the table – at least for the time being.
The president of the ethnically divided island nation warned Saturday that it is “far too early” to even consider such a move, which would almost certainly be met with fierce opposition from rival Turkey.
Many Cypriots, especially those on the political left, continue to blame NATO for the island’s de facto partition following Turkish invasion in the mid-1970s. At the time, Turkey was a NATO member, but the alliance did nothing to stop the military operation.
Stalwart Britain, a NATO member, maintains two sovereign military sites on Cyprus, one of which houses a sophisticated listening post on the east coast that is manned by American personnel.
Cyprus likewise seeks to retain its neutrality, therefore it has permitted Russian vessels to restock at Cypriot ports, albeit this permission was revoked after the Ukraine conflict broke out.