BERLIN — With Finland and Sweden taking steps to join NATO, the list of ‘neutral’ countries in Europe appears poised to shrink.
Like the two Nordic countries, other nations joined the European Union for its promise 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 Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine changed the calculus for Finland and Sweden which have long espoused neutrality and caused other traditionally ‘neutral’ countries to re-think what that term really means for them. Finland said it will decide on NATO membership in the coming days while Sweden could follow suit as public opinion in both Nordic countries has swelled in favor of membership.
While EU members are committed to coming to each other’s defense in case of an external attack, the pledge has largely remained on paper as NATO’s might overshadows the bloc’s own notions of collective defense.
Yet, Turkey could still pour cold water on the NATO ambitions of both Finland and Sweden. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the NATO member’s president said his country is ‘not of a favorable opinion’ of the idea because of alleged Nordic country support for Kurdish militants and others that Turkey considers as terrorists.
‘This is the key thing about 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’ into their laws or generally considered themselves neutral in the showdown 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 stayed out of both.
Arguably the most renowned neutral country in Europe, Switzerland has enshrined neutrality into its constitution and Swiss voters decided decades ago to stay out of the EU. But its government has been at pains in recent weeks to explain its concept of neutrality after lining up behind EU sanctions against Russia – and Swiss neutrality is analyzed almost daily in local media these days.
There’s little chance that Switzerland will stray further from its neutrality: Its government has already asked Germany not to pass along Swiss military equipment to Ukraine.
The populist, right-wing party that holds the largest bloc of seats in parliament has been hesitant about further measures against Russia, and the Swiss are fiercely protective of their role as mediator for rival states and as a hub of humanitarian action and human rights. Neutrality helps hone that reputation.
Austria’s neutrality is a key component of its modern democracy: As a condition of Allied forces leaving the country and its ability to regain independence in 1955, Austria declared itself militarily neutral.
Since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Chancellor Karl Nehammer has struck a fine balance with regard to Austria’s position. He has maintained that the country has no plans to change its security status, while at the same time declaring that military neutrality doesn’t necessarily mean moral neutrality – and that Austria strongly condemns Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Ireland’s neutrality has long been a bit of a gray area. Prime Minister Micheal Martin summed up the country’s position earlier this year as: ‘We’re not politically neutral, but we’re military neutral.’
The war in Ukraine has reopened the debate about what Ireland’s neutrality means. Ireland has imposed sanctions on Russia and sent non-lethal aid to Ukraine in response to the invasion.
Ireland has been participating in European Union battlegroups – part of the bloc’s efforts to harmonize its militaries.
Kruizinga, who has contributed to a Cambridge History of the First World War on neutrality, suggested that the more that EU and NATO memberships are similar, the better it is for the bloc ‘to portray itself as a geopolitical power.’
Malta’s constitution says the small Mediterranean island is officially neutral, hewing to a policy of ‘non-alignment and refusing to participate in any military alliance.’ A poll commissioned by the Foreign Ministry published two weeks before Russia’s invasion found a vast majority of respondents supported neutrality – and only 6 percent were against it.
The Times of Malta newspaper on Wednesday reported that Ireland’s Higgins, during a state visit, stressed 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 last decade, but any idea of NATO membership remains off the table – at least for now.
The ethnically split island nation’s president said Saturday that ‘it’s much to early” to even contemplate such a move that would invariably meet rival Turkey’s strong opposition.
Many Cypriots – particularly those on the political left – continue to blame NATO for the island’s de facto partition after Turkish forces invaded in the mid-1970s. Turkey was a NATO member at the time – and the alliance did nothing to prevent the military action.
Stalwart NATO member Britain has two sovereign military bases on Cyprus, which host a sophisticated listening post on the east coast that is co-operated by U.S. personnel.
Cyprus also wants to maintain a veneer of neutrality, and has allowed Russian warships to resupply at Cypriot ports, although that privilege was suspended after 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.