The end of neutrality
For EU countries that aren’t in NATO,
the war in Ukraine is causing them to rethink their position.
Illustration by Edmon de Haro for POLITICO
DUBLIN — In the elegant Georgian foreign ministry on the south side of St. Stephen’s Green in central Dublin, Ireland’s diplomatic corps is engaged in what has suddenly become an urgent debate: whether to reconsider the country’s traditional stance of military neutrality.
It’s a conversation taking place in national capitals across Europe, as Russian bombs falling on Ukrainian cities thrust concerns about security to heights not seen since the end of the Cold War. For European Union countries that are not members of NATO, the suddenly no-longer-unimaginable possibility of a confrontation between Moscow and the West is raising questions about whether military neutrality is desirable — or even possible.
Even in Ireland, one of the European countries furthest from the fighting, policymakers are starting to revisit a strategic position rooted in the country’s post-colonial history and repeatedly reaffirmed in the century since.
“At last, it feels that you can actually broach the subject,” said Cathal Berry, an independent member of the Irish parliament who advocates for a more robust defense policy. “In the past, if you even mentioned concerns about Ireland’s position on neutrality you were accused of warmongering.”
The overlap between EU and NATO membership is extensive but not complete. Not only is the military alliance far broader — including countries such as the United States, Canada and Turkey — there are six EU countries that, for strategic, geographic or historical reasons, have not joined NATO.
For Ireland, the reason lies primarily in its history as a colonized nation and its troubled relationship with Britain, which occupied the island to various extents for centuries. The country’s hard-fought fight for independence in the early 1920s and the subsequent civil war left its new leaders with little appetite for joining a military alliance alongside the United Kingdom.
Ireland joined the League of Nations in 1923 but controversially remained neutral in World War II. A similar argument won the day on the question of NATO membership in the 1960s.
Though the concept of neutrality is not codified in Ireland’s constitution, the idea has been repeatedly reaffirmed during the country’s integration into the EU.
Already picked a side
A landmark 1987 Supreme Court ruling found that proposed changes to the EU treaty necessitated an amendment to the Irish constitution via a referendum — paving the way for regular votes whenever a change to the EU treaty is proposed by Brussels.
As a result, concerns about EU integration — particularly in the field of security and defense — were regularly thrashed out as Ireland adopted the bloc’s various treaties, with Ireland winning clarification from Brussels that EU proposals on defense did not impact its own position after it rejected the Lisbon Treaty the first time around.
The war in Ukraine has put a fresh focus on the country’s defense posture.
Some, like Berry, the independent MP, argue that Dublin has already picked a side. Ireland for example permits U.S. troops to land at Shannon Airport on its Atlantic coast, a policy that continued even during the Iraq War when Switzerland refused Washington access to its airspace. Dublin has also signed up to EU security initiatives such as PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) and CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy) training missions.
What Dublin hasn’t done, argue critics of its stance on neutrality, is invest enough in its own defense. “Ireland spends the least on defense as a proportion of GDP of all the 27 EU member states,” said Mark Mellett, a former chief of staff of the Irish Defence Forces.
In particular, the country lacks the ability to identify all aircraft passing through its airspace, or to carry out sub-surface monitoring of the almost 1 million square kilometers of seabed that surround the country. A report last month by the Commission pointed to huge challenges for the country’s defense forces, which effectively lean heavily on Britain and the U.S. for help.
There are concerns about its own preparedness for any possible aggression, including hybrid attacks. Last year’s cyberattack on the country’s health system by Russian criminals and a planned exercise by the Russian navy just off the Irish coast just weeks before the Ukraine invasion have highlighted Ireland’s vulnerability as a non-aligned EU country separated geographically from the rest of the Continent.
‘Declaration of war’
Dublin isn’t the only national capital engaged in a national conversation about security and neutrality; even militarily neutral EU countries have joined the rest of the bloc in slapping Russia with economic sanctions that Vladimir Putin has denounced as “akin to a declaration of war.”
In March, shortly after Russia’s invasion, Denmark, a NATO member, announced it would hold a referendum on June 1 on the opt-out from EU defense policy it negotiated after the Maastricht treaty. “Historic times call for historic decisions,” said Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. A Yes vote would allow the country to participate in the EU’s CSDP missions.
Austria is also facing questions about the official neutrality it has espoused since World War II, a stance that helped it attract institutions like the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Austria’s Defense Minister Klaudia Tanner said there are no plans to change Austria’s policy of neutrality. “For me and for the entire government it’s very clear that we will not touch Austria’s military neutrality, which is also enshrined in our constitution,” she told POLITICO.
Like Ireland, however, while Austria is not a member of NATO, it does participate in EU defense efforts. Tanner said that the country will “actively contribute to the further development of EU common defense and security policy” in order to meet the bloc’s security challenges. For example, Vienna has said it plans to participate in the EU’s plan to create a Rapid Deployment Capacity of up to 5,000 troops, as codified in the Strategic Compass proposal agreed by ministers this week.
Some countries don’t have much room to maneuver. Cyprus’ status as a divided island and its troubled relationship with Turkey continues to complicate the prospect of the country joining NATO, and for this reason, it remains the only EU country not part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative, even as it continues to host large British bases on the island.
Others simply aren’t interested. In Malta, where neutrality is also written into the constitution, a survey published shortly before the war showed that 63 percent of the Maltese population is in favor of the island keeping that stance. Neutrality has not become an issue in the campaign ahead of the parliamentary election Malta is holding this weekend.
The meaning of neutrality
Where the debate is most pertinent is in the EU’s northern reaches. In a sign of the changing times, the ministers of Sweden and Finland, which share a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia, attended an extraordinary NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels earlier this month, despite not being members of the alliance.
“Finland will be in NATO sooner rather than later … I’m absolutely sure about this,” said Alexander Stubb, a former Finnish prime minister who has advocated joining the alliance. “The train left the station on the 24th of February when Putin attacked Ukraine.”
Stubb pointed to a recent poll showing 62 percent of the population in favor of NATO membership, and 16 percent against.
“An application coming from Finland is not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when.’ And if you ask me the question ‘when,’ I say it is not going to be days, it is not going to be weeks, but it will be within a few months.”
In Sweden, support for joining NATO outstripped opposition to the alliance for the first time this month, according to a poll. Sweden’s center-left Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has ruled out joining the alliance, but the country’s EU commissioner Ylva Johansson told a POLITICO event this week that in the event that Sweden did decide to join, it would be in partnership with Finland.
Stubb agreed. “I think it would be beneficial for both Sweden and Finland, that we joined together rather than separately,” he said. “But what I also tell my Swedish friends … is that they must understand that Finland has taken the lead in this process, and we will go into NATO whether or not Sweden goes.”
It will be lost to few that the other country engaged in conversation about neutrality these days is Ukraine. Moscow has said it considers the country’s desire to join NATO to be a security threat. Citing Austria as an example, it has suggested that peace could be struck if Ukraine agrees, among other things, to declare “neutrality.”
What exactly this would mean in practice remains unclear. Membership of NATO would be out, but would Ukraine have to give up its aspiration to join the EU, whose treaties include a mutual defense clause? Kyiv has insisted it would want security guarantees were it to sign up for such an arrangement. Many in the country will also take heart in the definition of non-alignment espoused by Finland and Sweden — that true neutrality can only be had if a country has the ability to fend for itself.