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EXPLAINER: ‘Neutral’ Europe backs down as NATO poised to expand

BERLIN — As Finland and Sweden move to join NATO amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, the list of “neutral” or non-aligned countries in Europe looks set to shrink.

Like the two Nordic countries, other nations joined the European Union for its promise of economic and political unity without taking sides in the East-West divide that endured beyond the end of the Cold War.

But security concerns over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have changed the calculus of Finland and Sweden, which have long espoused non-alignment and caused other traditionally “neutral” countries to rethink what that term means. really means to them. Finland said on Sunday it wants to join NATO, while Sweden may follow suit as public opinion in both Nordic countries has swelled in favor of joining.

While EU members have pledged to defend each other in the event of external attack, the commitment has remained largely on paper as NATO’s power eclipses NATO’s own notions of collective defense. of the block.

Yet Turkey could still pour cold water on the NATO ambitions of Finland and Sweden. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is a NATO member, said his government was “not in favour” of the idea because of the Nordic countries’ alleged support for Kurdish militants and others whom Turkey considers to be terrorists.

“This is the key element of 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 confrontation between the United States and Russia and their respective affiliates. Austria, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta are EU members that did not join NATO, and Switzerland remained outside of both.


Arguably the most renowned neutral country in Europe, Switzerland enshrined neutrality in its constitution and Swiss voters decided decades ago to stay out of the EU. But his government has struggled in recent weeks to explain its concept of neutrality after aligning itself behind EU sanctions against Russia – and Swiss neutrality is analyzed almost daily in local media these days.

There is little chance that Switzerland will move further away from its neutrality: its government has already asked Germany not to transmit Swiss military equipment to Ukraine.

The right-wing populist party that holds the largest bloc of seats in parliament has been reluctant to take further action against Russia, and the Swiss are fiercely protective of their role as a mediator for rival states and a hub of humanitarian action and human rights. Neutrality helps to strengthen this reputation.


Austria’s neutrality is a key element of its modern democracy: as a condition for the departure of allied forces from the country and its ability to regain its 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 asserted that the country was not planning to change its security status, while saying that military neutrality did not necessarily mean moral neutrality – and that Austria strongly condemned 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 follows: “We are not politically neutral, but we are militarily neutral.”

The war in Ukraine has reopened the debate about what Irish neutrality means. Ireland imposed sanctions on Russia and sent non-lethal aid to Ukraine in response to the invasion.

Ireland has participated in European Union battlegroups – part of the bloc’s efforts to harmonize its armies.

Kruizinga, who contributed to a Cambridge history of World War I on neutrality, suggested that the more similar the EU and NATO memberships, the better it is for the bloc “to present itself as a power geopolitics”.


Malta’s constitution stipulates that the small Mediterranean island is officially neutral, following a policy of “non-alignment and refusing to participate in any military alliance”. A poll commissioned by the Foreign Office released two weeks before Russia’s invasion found that a large majority of those polled supported neutrality – and only 6% were against it.

The Times of Malta newspaper reported on Wednesday that Irish President Michael 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 developed 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 far too early” to even consider such a move which would invariably meet strong opposition from rival Turkey.

Many Cypriots – especially 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 NATO member in the era – and the alliance did nothing to prevent military action.

Britain, a staunch member of NATO, has two sovereign military bases in Cyprus, which host a sophisticated listening post on the east coast which is operated by US personnel.

Cyprus also wants to maintain a veneer of neutrality and has allowed Russian warships to resupply in Cypriot ports, although this privilege was suspended after the start of the war in Ukraine.


Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus; Jill Lawless in London; Emily Schultheis in Vienna; and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.