BERLIN – The list of “neutral” countries in Europe appears to be shrinking as Finland and Sweden move to join NATO.
But security concerns over Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine have changed the count for Finland and Sweden, which have long supported neutrality and forced other traditionally “neutral” countries to rethink what the term really means for them. Finland has said it will decide on NATO membership in the coming days, as Sweden may follow suit as public opinion in both Nordic countries has become stronger for membership.
Although EU members are committed to defending each other in the event of an external attack, the commitment remains largely on paper as NATO’s collective defense bloc may override its own ideas.
Nevertheless, Turkey can still pour cold water on the NATO ambitions of both Finland and Sweden. NATO member Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his country does not have a “favorable view” of the idea because of accusations of Nordic support for Kurdish militants and others whom Turkey considers terrorists.
“This is the essence of neutrality: it means different things to different people,” said Samuel Cruisinga, a historian at the University of Amsterdam.
Here’s a look at some of the countries that have included “neutrality” in their laws or generally consider themselves neutral in showdowns between the United States and Russia and their respective allies. Austria, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta are members of the European Union that have not joined NATO and Switzerland has remained outside.
Arguably the most famous neutral country in Europe, Switzerland has incorporated neutrality into its constitution and Swiss voters decided to stay out of the European Union decades ago. But his government has struggled to explain the concept of neutrality in recent weeks as it lined up behind EU sanctions against Russia – and Swiss neutrality is analyzed almost daily in the local media these days.
Switzerland is less likely to deviate further from its neutrality: its government has already told Germany not to go to Ukraine with Swiss military equipment.
The populist, right-wing party, which holds the largest number of seats in parliament, was reluctant to take further action against Russia, and the Swiss are strictly defensive for their role as mediators for rival states and for humanitarian action and human rights. Neutrality helps to enhance that reputation.
Austria’s neutrality is a key element of its modern democracy: the condition for the Allies to leave the country and the ability to regain independence in 1955, Austria declared itself militarily neutral.
Since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, Chancellor Carl Nehamar has maintained a delicate balance over Austria’s position. He maintains that there are no plans to change the country’s security situation, while declaring that military neutrality does not mean moral neutrality – and Austria strongly condemns Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Ireland’s neutrality has long been a bit of a gray area. Prime Minister Michael Martin summed up the country’s position earlier this year: “We are not politically neutral, but we are militarily neutral.”
The war in Ukraine has reopened the debate over what Ireland’s neutrality means. Ireland has imposed sanctions on Russia and sent non-lethal aid to Ukraine in response to the attack.
Ireland is taking part in the European Union’s war zone – part of the bloc’s efforts to harmonize its military.
Cruzinga, who contributed to the Cambridge history of World War I neutrality, suggested that the more similar the EU and NATO membership, the better for the bloc to “portray itself as a geopolitical force.”
The Maltese constitution states that the small Mediterranean island is formally bound by the principle of neutrality, “non-alignment and refusal to participate in any military alliance”. A Foreign Ministry survey released two weeks before the Russian invasion found that a large majority of respondents supported neutrality – and only 6 percent opposed it.
The Times of Malta newspaper reported on Wednesday that Higgins of Ireland, during a state visit, emphasized the idea of ”positive” neutrality and joined Maltese President George Vella in condemning the war in Ukraine.
Cyprus’s relationship with the United States has grown significantly over the past decade, but any idea of NATO membership remains out of the table – at least for now.
The president of the ethnically divided island nation said on Saturday that it was “too early” to even consider a move that would face strong opposition from rival Turkey.
After the Turkish invasion in the mid-1970s, many Cypriots – especially the political left – continued to blame NATO for the de facto division of the island. Turkey was then a member of NATO – and the alliance did nothing to prevent military action.
Stalwart NATO member Britain has two sovereign military bases in Cyprus, hosting a state-of-the-art listening post on the east coast that is run by U.S. personnel.
Cyprus also wants to maintain its neutrality, and has allowed Russian warships to re-enter the port of Cypriot, although that privilege was suspended after the start of the war in Ukraine.
Menelaus hajikostis in Nicosia, Cyprus; Jill Lawless in London; Emily Schulthis in Vienna; And Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.