When Sweden and Finland submitted their official requests to join NATO on May 18, 2022, it was a historic departure from their policies of neutrality and a clear sign that the invasion of Ukraine was redrawing Europe’s security framework.
In some ways, Sweden and Finland ceased to be neutral when they joined the EU in 1995, although they were not part of a military alliance such as NATO. The lines between neutrality and non-neutrality necessarily become blurred once countries join the EU, explains Max Bergmann, director of the Europe programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Moreover, the war in Ukraine “has challenged the concept of neutrality and how neutral countries can actually be under the present circumstances”, he says.
Although the European Union is first and foremost a political and economic union, it has introduced an unprecedented nine sanctions packages since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, with the 10th, worth an estimated €10 billion, coming into effect by the upcoming one-year anniversary.
Even historically neutral Switzerland has joined the EU in imposing sanctions against Russia, a move that marks “a historic break” in the country’s foreign policy, says professor Andrew Cottey of the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork.
FRANCE 24 takes a look at the policy of neutrality, why certain European countries have relied on it, and how that stance is evolving in an era of newly emerging threats.
Finland and Sweden
Finland’s policy of neutrality dates back to 1948, when it entered into a peace agreement with the Soviet Union entitled The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance. While providing for mutual defence cooperation with the Soviet Union, its preamble stated Finland’s “desire to remain outside the conflicting interests of the Great Powers”.
The treaty forbade either party from joining a military alliance aligned against the other and required Finland to fend off any attack that used its territory to target the Soviet Union. As a result, “Finland always needed to take into consideration how each political act would affect its relationship with the Soviet Union,” says Jacob Westberg, an associate professor in War Studies at the Swedish Defence University. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Finland negotiated its way out of the treaty.
While Finland’s policy of neutrality was delineated by a treaty, Sweden’s was based on tradition. Sweden refrained from military alliances after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, remained mostly neutral throughout World War II and the Cold War, and then, like Finland, formed closer ties with NATO following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Sweden formally ended its policy of neutrality in 2007 by ratifying the Lisbon Treaty with its mutual defence clause of Article 42.7, which obliges EU members to assist any member state that comes under attack. Following this move, Sweden signed a declaration of solidarity with NATO in 2009 that has since formed the basis of its security doctrine. It states that Sweden “will not remain passive if another EU Member State or Nordic country suffers a disaster or an attack. We expect these countries to take similar action if Sweden is affected.”
The five Nordic countries – Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Norway – then signed the Nordic declaration on solidarity in April 2011, agreeing that, “Should a Nordic country be affected, the others will, upon request from that country, assist with relevant means.”
Sweden and Finland then signed the host nation support agreement to allow NATO assistance in emergency situations in August 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “This agreement was the first step that Finland and Sweden took towards further approaching NATO” on defence-related issues, says Westberg.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine acted as a “huge catalyst” for Finland and Sweden’s decisions to join NATO as they realised that “conventional warfare had returned to Europe”, says Bergmann, of CSIS. However, both nations had started making plans to join NATO after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which they saw “as a wake-up call that Russia was a real threat”.
Following the annexation, Sweden and Finland increased defence spending and developed plans to counter Russian disinformation. Finland in particular had avoided formally joining NATO prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because it shares a 1,340-kilometre border and long history with Russia. Historically, both Sweden and Finland, but especially the latter, had agreed to adopt policies of neutrality, in part, not to “antagonise or provoke the Soviet Union”, says Cottey.
However, following the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine there was a dramatic shift in public opinion in both Finland and Sweden. Many people in those countries now felt that “Russia was a real potential threat to them and [they] didn’t want to be left in an ambiguous position in the event of a Russian invasion”, Bergmann says.
Once Sweden observed that Finland was taking steps to join NATO, and thus would be protected by the collective defence clause enshrined in Article 5 of its founding treaty, it followed suit; the two countries have a long history of making joint decisions on defence. Since Russia’s invasion, Sweden has provided more than $475 million in military assistance to Ukraine. It approved its 10th military aid package, worth about $406 million, on February 8. Finland, meanwhile, sent its 12th and largest defence package to Ukraine on January 20, worth more than €400 million, thus bringing its total amount of military aid to €590 million.
Although their decision to join NATO is unlikely to encourage other neutral countries, such as Ireland and Switzerland, to follow suit, Finland and Sweden’s membership bids send the message of the “strategic importance of defence and of belonging to a grouping of countries that are willing to come to each other’s aid”, Bergmann says.
Switzerland “prides itself on having the longest legacy of neutrality” in the world, says Westberg. The policy dating from at least the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. As the European country most committed to this policy, the Swiss constitution even requires its government to “take measures to safeguard Switzerland’s neutrality”.
Switzerland did not join the UN until 2001 because it felt that it was “important to maintain its distance with other world powers” and is still not a member of the EU, Westberg notes.
Due to their geographic positions, both Switzerland and Ireland have had the luxury of not needing to pursue robust defence strategies, Westberg says, noting that being surrounded by NATO countries renders invasion unlikely and creates “a strong legacy of support for neutrality”. Nevertheless, countries such as Portugal and Belgium, which benefit from similar geographic advantages, decided to opt for NATO membership.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent debates about national security, Switzerland moved to increase its military budget on June 2, 2022, to at least 1 percent of GDP by 2030. This was a reversal of a post-Cold War trend that saw military spending fall from 1.34% of GDP in 1990 to 0.67% in 2019. A recent poll conducted by Sotomo also showed that 55% of respondents are in favour of allowing the re-export of Swiss weapons to Ukraine, which is not currently permissible under Swiss law. The pollsters believe that if the same question had been asked prior to the war the number would have been much lower, “probably less than 25%”, Lukas Golder, co-director of pollsters GFS-Bern, told Reuters.
The leader of Switzerland’s centre-right FDP party, Thierry Burkart, submitted a motion to the government on February 6 proposing changes to the country’s current policy of neutrality. Another parliamentary initiative that would amend laws against re-exporting Swiss arms specifically for Ukraine even has support from some in the Green party.
Austria is bound to neutrality by the 1955 Austrian State Treaty and its constitution, which prevents it from forming military alliances and the establishment of foreign military bases on its territory. Like Sweden, Austria’s neutrality is enforced and modelled on Switzerland’s.
In the 1955 Moscow Memorandum, the Soviet Union agreed to sign the State Treaty in exchange for Austria declaring its permanent state of neutrality. All of the countries with which Austria had diplomatic relations at the time: the Soviet Union, the UK, US and France ratified the treaty, after which allied troops withdrew from Austrian territory.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Austria has pledged more than €580 million to Ukraine. This is mostly in humanitarian aid, however, as the neutrality enshrined in Austria’s constitution doesn’t allow for weapons deliveries. Austria has also taken in more than 50,000 Ukrainian refugees, said Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner. “It is important to emphasise that while we are militarily neutral according to our constitution and legal regulations, we are certainly not politically neutral when it comes to Ukraine. That is why we have supported all EU sanctions from the very beginning,” said Tanner during an interview with EUROACTIV.
Despite pledging a political commitment to Ukraine, Austria still wants to maintain cordial relations with Russia. On February 28, less than a week after the invasion, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer proposed hosting peace talks between Ukraine and Russia in Vienna. Austria hosted talks between the Cold War powers and so “has always seen itself as a bridge-builder”, said Nehammer at the time. Austria was also heavily criticised by its EU allies after it announced that it would allow Russian parliamentarians, all of whom have been put on the EU’s sanctions list, to attend the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) assembly meeting in Vienna on February 23 and 24, the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Shortly after declaring independence in 1937, Ireland adopted a policy of neutrality when World War II began as a means of both countering the potential threat from Germany and resisting the historical imperial power of the UK. In remaining neutral, despite British and US pleas to join the war effort, Ireland strengthened its newfound independence.
Ireland was invited to join NATO in 1949 but declined, stating it did not want to join an alliance that included the UK. The history of Irish neutrality has “strong origins in the struggle for independence from the UK, and has important elements of anti-imperialism and anti-militarism attached to it”, says Cottey.
Ireland’s political support for Ukraine, therefore, marks a significant departure from its stance during World War II. The Irish people, says Cottey, view Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “an act of aggression”, an attempt to “conquer a neighbouring state” and have “political and moral sympathy for Ukraine”.
But although Ireland has expressed its support for Ukrainian independence and its right to self-defence, opinion polls show that the majority of Irish people want to maintain the country’s official policy of military neutrality (although the Irish Defence Forces have been active in UN and EU peacekeeping missions since 1958). Ireland has also contributed €55 million in military aid to Ukraine in the form of “non-lethal military assistance” such as body armour and medical supplies for Ukraine’s military.
Ireland’s policy was well described following the invasion of Ukraine by then-prime minister Michéal Martin, who said repeatedly that “Ireland’s official policy is to be militarily non-aligned”, while adding: “We are, however, not politically non-aligned.”
The war in Ukraine has raised debate in Ireland around both reconsidering the country’s military neutrality and holding a referendum to enshrine neutrality in the country’s constitution.
Ireland has taken in more than 62,000 Ukrainian refugees since the war began, an impressive figure given that Ireland has a population of just over 5 million. By comparison, Switzerland, which has a population of 8.8 million, has taken in a little over 70,000 Ukrainian refugees.
The Irish government also announced on July 18, 2022 the largest increase in defence spending seen in the country’s history, jumping from €1.1 billion to €1.5 billion by 2028. Ireland has historically had one of the lowest defence budgets in Europe.
“There is a growing sense in Ireland now that security and defence is a collective challenge and that it should no longer be entirely dependent on US and UK protection,” Bergmann says.
The invasion of Ukraine brought security concerns to the forefront for many in Europe who had hoped the prospect of large-scale warfare on the Continent was a thing of the past. Fears persist that a localised conflict like the one in Ukraine could spill over into a broader war or mark the start of a new era of Russian expansionism. Given the current uncertainties, neutral nations are rethinking their stance – and some have already decided that there is safety in numbers.
The post War in Ukraine tests long-standing neutrality of some European nations appeared first on France 24.