For the longest time, Austria has enjoyed a relatively stable internal security environment. The country is predominantly adjacent to democratic neighboring states that are either members of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or have been following a similar tradition of foreign policy neutrality. Therefore, safe borders are virtually assured. However, many have begun to reconsider Austria’s traditional security policies since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022–a seminal event in contemporary European history that has sparked the question of whether security is a public good that has been taken for granted.
While world politics has changed considerably over the past decade, Austria has not updated its security strategies since 2013. That was a time prior to international turmoil: before the war on the eastern borders of Europe, the hegemonic competition between China and the United States, and the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU. However, during the same period Austria has faced many internal challenges: the mass arrival of refugees from diverse cultures and the challenge of their integration into Austrian society, a terrorist attack in its capital, the political scandal of the Ibiza affair, and the rise of right-wing extremism and populism. These domestic and international shocks suggest a need for an updated Austrian security policy that befits its new environment, but what would such a policy look like considering Austria’s neutrality?
Strategies in the Past
In 2013, the National Council, with the affirmative votes of the SPÖ, ÖVP, FPÖ, and Team Stronach, adopted the resolution on a new Austrian security strategy. The resolution asked the Federal Government to formulate Austrian security policy in accordance with the resolution’s general and sector-specific recommendations on internal security, foreign policy aspects of security policy, and defense policy. At the time, the strategy formulated a proactive approach to security in which the Austrian Armed Forces was the central actor in Austrian security. According to the strategy, modern security policy is a multifaceted topic that affects practically every aspect of life and politics and thus, must be thorough, actively planned, and consistently implemented.
In the latest government program of 2020, Austria envisioned a security force capable of responding to natural catastrophes, fighting transnational organized crime, preventing violence, countering extremism, and dealing with emerging security risks like those in cyberspace. These are described as the central capabilities of a contemporary police force. Moreover, the Federal Ministry of the Interior has developed a multi-year departmental strategy entitled “Safe. Austria” (“Sicher.Österreich”) whose core components include a consistent course on immigration, return, and asylum as well as on fighting against extremism and terrorism. This strategy offers a clearer focus on contemporary threats that states nowadays deal with.
The actions of international organizations, particularly the EU, are increasingly influencing security policy developments in Europe. The EU, as a community dedicated to peace, security, and solidarity, serves as the primary organizing principle for Austrian security policy. Therefore, Austria will likely take part in every aspect of the security policy of the EU.
Austria’s neutrality can be characterized as situational. When enforcing economic sanctions alongside the EU or the United Nations, neutrality does not appear to be an obstacle. Austrian neutrality is solely restricted to military actions. Therefore, the sanctions do not constitute a breach of neutrality; being neutral implies that Austria shall not join military alliances, nor shall it host military bases on its territory. Although opinions on security policies are sharply split among the country’s political parties, they share one common ground: Austria should not join NATO.
The incumbent Austrian chancellor, Karl Nehammer, made the headlines as one of the first European leaders to visit Ukraine in April 2022, as well as the first Western politician to visit Russia and meet with Vladimir Putin after the invasion started. This demonstrates his stance on neutrality by stressing the value of international solidarity with the EU and the UN, while also perpetuating the image of Austria as a mediator in international conflicts. Furthermore, Austria’s Minister of Defense, Klaudia Tanner (ÖVP), promotes a common security policy in the EU, but she does not see any immediate relevance in joining NATO. According to Tanner, Sweden and Finland have a higher threat perception due to their geographic proximity to Russia. Vice-Chancellor and head of the Green Party in Austria, Werner Kogler, shares the opinion of their coalition partner.
The political center-left party (SPÖ) expresses anti-NATO sentiments since the socialists see the alliance as a tool of modern imperialism and armament. Although the extreme right party, FPÖ, supports this stance, it calls for the lifting of sanctions on Russia. Only NEOS, the neo-liberal party, is currently willing to abandon neutrality – not to join NATO, but rather to establish a European army. Most importantly though, Austrian neutrality is upheld by the general public. Despite Ukraine being bombarded just a few hundred kilometers from the Austrian border, more than two-thirds of the country’s population reject joining NATO.
Consequently, it seems unlikely that Austria will join NATO or send military aid to Ukraine anytime soon. No alteration in Austrian public opinion should be anticipated provided the conflict in Ukraine does not spread to other EU countries. In the meantime, it seems as if the Austrian security strategy is stagnating. The world has significantly changed since the last plan and an update is required, otherwise Austria’s strategy risks losing relevance. Finally, a public discussion should be initiated to decide the future direction of Austrian security policy. Although the idea of neutrality will not change soon, the world will nonetheless keep on evolving, new conflicts will break out, and new action plans will need to be drawn out to protect its people and values.
Austria will remain committed to acting as a mediator between the East and the West while distancing itself from any military participation. Nevertheless, if Austria wants to continue enjoying military protection from its neighboring countries as well as from the EU, it must contribute its share to defending the European security order. Austria would be well-placed to provide financial resources, humanitarian aid, and shelter for refugees, as it indirectly benefits from the deterrent effect of its neighbors’ defense capabilities.
Written by Stephanie Pais Raposo and Anna-Maria Fister; Edited by Maryam Sindi
Photo Credit to Marta Branco, Pexels