The end of neutrality – POLITICO

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For EU countries that are not in NATO,
the war in Ukraine makes them reconsider their position.

Illustration by Edmon de Haro for POLITICO

DUBLIN — At the elegant Georgian Foreign Office on the south side of St Stephen’s Green in central Dublin, Ireland’s diplomatic corps is locked in a suddenly urgent debate: whether to reconsider the country’s traditional stance on military neutrality.

It’s a conversation taking place in national capitals across Europe, while Russian bombs falling on Ukrainian cities are raising security concerns to heights not seen since the end of the Cold War. For European Union countries that are not members of NATO, the suddenly unthinkable possibility of a confrontation between Moscow and the West raises the question of whether military neutrality is desirable or even possible.

Even in Ireland, one of the European countries furthest from the fighting, policymakers are beginning to reconsider a strategic position rooted in the country’s post-colonial history and reiterated ever since.

“Finally you feel like you can actually raise the issue,” said Cathal Berry, an independent MP in Ireland’s parliament who is campaigning for a more robust defense policy. “In the past, even raising concerns about Ireland’s position on neutrality has been accused of warmongering.”

The overlap between EU and NATO membership is extensive but not complete. Not only is the military alliance much broader – including countries like the United States, Canada and Turkey – there are six EU countries that have not joined NATO for strategic, geographic or historical reasons.

For Ireland, the reason lies largely in its history as a colonized nation and its troubled relationship with Britain, which occupied the island to varying degrees for centuries. The country’s hard-fought struggle for independence in the early 1920s and subsequent civil war left its new leaders reluctant to join a military alliance alongside the United Kingdom.

Ireland joined the League of Nations in 1923 but remained controversially neutral during World War II. A similar argument prevailed in the 1960s on the issue of NATO membership.

Although the concept of neutrality is not enshrined in Ireland’s constitution, the idea has been repeatedly affirmed during the country’s integration into the EU.

I’ve already chosen a side

A landmark 1987 Supreme Court ruling found that proposed EU treaty amendments required an amendment to the Irish constitution by referendum – paving the way for regular votes whenever EU treaty amendment was proposed by Brussels.

As a result, concerns about EU integration – particularly in the area of ​​security and defense – were regularly allayed when Ireland adopted the bloc’s various treaties, with Ireland receiving clarification from Brussels that EU proposals on defense did not affect its own position after it they had rejected the Lisbon Treaty for the first time.

The war in Ukraine has brought new focus to the country’s defense posture.

Some, like Berry, the Independent MP, argue Dublin has already chosen sides. Ireland, for example, allows US troops to land at Shannon Airport on its Atlantic coast, a policy that continued even during the Iraq War when Switzerland denied Washington access to its airspace. Dublin has also joined EU security initiatives such as PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) and CSDP (Common Security and Defense Policy) training missions.

What Dublin has failed to do, critics of its neutrality stance argue, is invest enough in its own defence. “Ireland has the least spending on defense as a percentage of GDP of all 27 EU member states,” said Mark Mellett, a former chief of staff in the Irish Defense Forces.

In particular, the country is unable to identify all aircraft passing through its airspace or conduct underground surveillance of the nearly 1 million square kilometers of seabed that surrounds the country. A report by the commission last month pointed to enormous challenges facing the country’s defense forces, which are effectively leaning heavily on Britain and the US for help.

There are concerns about one’s readiness for potential aggression, including hybrid attacks. Last year’s cyberattack by Russian criminals on the country’s healthcare system and a planned Russian naval exercise off the Irish coast just weeks before invading Ukraine have highlighted Ireland’s vulnerability as a non-aligned EU country geographically separated from the rest of the continent .

‘Declaration of war’

Dublin isn’t the only national capital involved in a national conversation about security and neutrality; Even militarily neutral EU countries have joined the rest of the bloc in hitting Russia with economic sanctions against Vladimir Putin has terminated as “similar to a declaration of war”.

In March, shortly after Russia’s invasion, Denmark, a NATO member, announced that it would hold a June 1 referendum on its exit from the EU’s defense policy, which it had negotiated under the Maastricht Treaty. “Historical times call for historical decisions,” said Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. A yes would allow the country to participate in the EU’s CSDP missions.

Austria is also facing questions about the official neutrality it has held since World War II, a stance that has helped attract institutions like the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Austria’s Defense Minister Klaudia Tanner said there were no plans to change Austria’s policy of neutrality. “For me and for the entire federal government, it is very clear that we will not touch Austria’s military neutrality, which is also enshrined in our constitution,” she told POLITICO.

Like Ireland, Austria is not a NATO member but participates in the EU’s defense efforts. Tanner said the country would “actively contribute to the further development of the EU’s common defense and security policy” to address the bloc’s security challenges. For example, Vienna has announced that it will join 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 leeway. Cyprus’ status as a divided island and its troubled relations with Turkey continue to complicate the prospect of the country joining NATO, and for this reason it remains the only EU country not participating in NATO’s Partnership for Peace initiative ( PfP) participates, although it continues to host major British bases on the island.

Others just aren’t interested. In Malta, where neutrality is also enshrined in the constitution, a opinion poll The statement, released just before the war, showed that 63 per cent of the Maltese population wanted the island to maintain this stance. Neutrality has not become an issue in the campaign ahead of Malta’s general elections this weekend.

The meaning of neutrality

Where the debate is most relevant is in the northern reaches of the EU. In a sign of change, ministers from Sweden and Finland, who 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 a member of NATO sooner rather than later… I’m absolutely sure of it,” said Alexander Stubb, a former Finnish prime minister who has advocated joining the alliance. “The train left the station on February 24 when Putin attacked Ukraine.”

Stubb pointed to a recent poll showing that 62 percent of the population supports NATO membership and 16 percent opposes it.

“An application from Finland is not a question of ‘if’, but a question of ‘when’. And if you ask me the question ‘when’, I’ll say it won’t be days, it won’t be weeks, but it will be in a few months.”

In Sweden, support for NATO membership outweighed opposition to the alliance for the first time this month, according to a poll. Sweden’s centre-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 Sweden would partner with Finland if it did.

Stubb agreed. “I think it would be beneficial for both Sweden and Finland if we joined together and not separately,” he said. “But what I also say to my Swedish friends … is that they need to understand that Finland has taken the lead in this process and we will enter NATO whether Sweden is in it or not.”

Few will have noticed that the other country talking about neutrality these days is Ukraine. Moscow has said it views the country’s desire to join NATO as a security threat. Quote Austria, as an example, has suggested that peace could be made if, among other things, Ukraine agrees to declare “neutrality”.

What that would mean in practice remains unclear. NATO membership would be gone, but Ukraine would have to abandon its aspirations to join the EU, whose treaties include it a mutual defense clause? Kyiv has insisted it wants security guarantees if it signs up to such an agreement. Many in the country will also take to heart Finland and Sweden’s definition of nonalignment – that true neutrality can only be achieved when a country is able to fend for itself. The end of neutrality - POLITICO

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