With Finland and Sweden taking steps to join NATO, the list of “neutral” countries in Europe seems about to be shortened.
Like the two Nordic countries, other nations joined the European Union because of their promise of economic and political unity without taking sides in the East-West divide that has endured beyond the end of the Cold War.
But security concerns over the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine have changed the calculus for Finland and Sweden, which have long advocated neutrality, and caused other traditionally “neutral” countries to reconsider what that term really means to them. Finland said it will decide on NATO membership in the coming days, while Sweden may do the same, as public opinion in both Nordic countries has surged in favor of membership.
While EU members pledge to defend each other in the event of an external attack, the promise has largely remained on paper as NATO’s power overshadows the bloc’s own notions of collective defense.
However, Turkey could still throw cold water on the NATO ambitions of Finland and Sweden. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the NATO member’s president, said his country “does not have a favorable view” of the idea because of the Nordic countries’ alleged support for Kurdish militants and others Turkey considers terrorists.
“This is the key to neutrality: It means different things to different people,” said historian Samuel Kruizinga of the University of Amsterdam.
Here’s a look at some countries that have enshrined “neutrality” in their laws or generally consider themselves neutral in the standoff between the United States and Russia and their respective affiliates. Austria, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta are EU members that have not joined NATO, and Switzerland has been left out of both.
Possibly the most famous neutral country in Europe, Switzerland has enshrined neutrality in its constitution and Swiss voters decided decades ago to stay out of the EU. But his government has been at pains in recent weeks to explain its concept of neutrality after endorsing EU sanctions against Russia, and Swiss neutrality is discussed almost daily in local media these days.
There is little chance that Switzerland will stray further from its neutrality: its government has already asked Germany not to deliver Swiss military equipment to Ukraine.
The right-wing populist party that holds the largest bloc of seats in parliament has been hesitant about further action against Russia, with the Swiss fiercely protecting its role as a mediator for rival states and as a center for humanitarian action and human rights. Neutrality helps hone that reputation.
Austria’s neutrality is a key component of its modern democracy: as a condition for Allied forces to leave the country and its ability to regain independence in 1955, Austria declared itself militarily neutral.
Since the beginning of Russia’s war in the Ukraine, Chancellor Karl Nehammer has struck a good balance regarding Austria’s position. He has maintained that the country has no plans to change its security status, while stating that military neutrality does not necessarily mean moral neutrality, and that Austria strongly condemns Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Ireland’s neutrality has long been a gray area. Prime Minister Micheal Martin summed up the country’s position earlier this year as: “We are not neutral politically, but we are neutral militarily.”
The war in the Ukraine has reopened the debate on what Ireland’s neutrality means. Ireland imposed sanctions on Russia and sent non-lethal aid to Ukraine in response to the invasion.
Ireland has been participating in the European Union’s battle groups, part of the bloc’s efforts to harmonize its armed forces.
Kruizinga, who has contributed to the Cambridge History of the First World War on Neutrality, suggested that the more similar the EU and NATO memberships are, the better it will be for the bloc to “present itself as a geopolitical power.”
Malta’s constitution says the tiny Mediterranean island is officially neutral, following a policy of “no alignment and refusing to participate in any military alliance.” A poll commissioned by the Foreign Ministry released two weeks before Russia’s invasion found that the vast majority of respondents supported neutrality, with just 6 percent against it.
The Times of Malta newspaper reported on Wednesday that Ireland’s Higgins, during a state visit, emphasized the idea of ”positive” neutrality and joined Maltese President George Vella in condemning the war in Ukraine.
Cyprus’ relations with the United States have grown considerably over the past decade, but any idea of NATO membership remains off the table, at least for now.
The president of the ethnically divided island nation said on Saturday that “it is too early” to even contemplate such a move that would invariably meet with strong opposition from rival Turkey.
Many Cypriots, particularly those on the political left, continue to blame NATO for the de facto partition of the island after Turkish forces invaded in the mid-1970s. Turkey was a member of NATO at the time, and the alliance did nothing to prevent military action.
Staunch NATO member Britain has two sovereign military bases in Cyprus, which host a sophisticated listening post on the east coast that is co-operated by US personnel.
Cyprus also wants to maintain a semblance of neutrality and has allowed Russian warships to refuel in Cypriot ports, although that privilege was suspended after the war in Ukraine began.
Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus; Jill Lawless in London; Emily Schultheis in Vienna; and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.