Europe’s list of “neutral” countries appears poised to shrink as Finland and Sweden take steps to join NATO.
Like the two Nordic countries, other countries joined the European Union, promising economic and political unity rather than side with the East-West division that persisted after the end of the Cold War.
But security concerns over Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine changed the calculations of long-neutral Finland and Sweden, and forced other traditionally “neutral” countries to rethink what the term actually meant for them. Finland said it would decide whether to join NATO soon, and Sweden said it would follow suit as public opinion in the two Nordic countries grew in favor of joining.
EU member states do their best to defend each other in the event of an outside attack, but this promise remains largely in the document as NATO’s powers overshadow the bloc’s concept of collective defense.
But Turkey could still pour cold water on the NATO ambitions of both Finland and Sweden. NATO member Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president, said Turkey “does not have a favorable view” on the idea because the Nordic countries are suspected of supporting Kurdish rebels and others that Turkey considers terrorists.
“The key to neutrality is that it means different things to different people,” says historian Samuel Kruzinga of the University of Amsterdam.
Here’s a look at some countries that have or generally consider “neutral” to be “neutral” in their laws in the confrontation between the United States and Russia and their affiliates. Austria, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta are EU member states that are not members of NATO, while Switzerland is not a member of either.
Arguably Europe’s most famous neutral country, Switzerland has declared neutrality in its constitution, and Swiss voters decided to leave the EU decades ago. However, in recent weeks the government has struggled to explain the concept of neutrality as the government is behind EU sanctions against Russia, which is being analyzed almost daily in the local press these days.
It is unlikely that Switzerland will move further from neutrality. The Swiss government has already asked Germany not to hand over Swiss military equipment to Ukraine.
The populist right-wing party, which holds the largest number of seats in the parliament, is hesitant to take further action against Russia, while Switzerland is fiercely protective of its role as a mediator of competing countries and a center for humanitarian action and human rights. Neutrality helps hone that reputation.
Austria’s neutrality is a key element of modern democracy. Austria declared itself militarily neutral on condition that Allied forces left Austria in 1955 to regain independence.
Since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Prime Minister Karl Nehammer has balanced Austria’s position. He argued that the country had 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 Michael Martin summed up America’s position earlier this year: “We are not politically neutral, but we are military neutral.”
The Ukrainian War has rekindled the debate over what Ireland’s neutrality meant. Ireland imposed sanctions on Russia and sent non-lethal aid in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
Ireland participates in the European Union Combat Group, which is part of the European Union’s efforts to unite its armed forces.
Kruizinga, who contributed to the Cambridge History of the First World War on neutrality, suggested that the more similar the EU and NATO member states were, the better the bloc “describes it as a geopolitical powerhouse.”
Malta’s constitution states that the small island in the Mediterranean is officially neutral and follows a policy of “not participating in any non-alliance and any military alliances”. A poll commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs two weeks before the Russian invasion found a majority of respondents in favor of neutrality, with only 6% against it.
The Times of Malta newspaper reported on Wednesday that Ireland’s Higgins emphasized “positive” neutrality during a state visit and, along with Malta’s President George Bella, condemned the Ukraine war.
Relations between the United States and Cyprus have increased significantly over the past decade, but the idea of joining NATO is not being discussed, at least for now.
The president of the ethnically divided island nation said on Saturday it was “still too early” to even consider such a move, which will always come up against strong opposition from rival Turkey.
Many Cyprus, especially left-wing politicians, continue to accuse NATO of the de facto division of the island after the Turkish invasion in the mid-1970s. At the time, Turkey was a member of NATO, and the alliance did nothing to prevent military action.
The UK, a staunch NATO member, has two sovereign military bases in Cyprus, which include sophisticated hearing stations on the east coast where US agents cooperate.
Cyprus also wants to remain neutral and has allowed Russian warships to resupply from Cyprus ports, but that privilege was suspended after the start of the Ukrainian War.
Menelaos Hadjicostis of Nicosia, Cyprus; Jill Lawless of London; Emily Schultheis of Vienna; And Frances D’Emilio from Rome contributed to this report.