Austria's Strategic Neutrality, A Conversation with the Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer

Austria's Strategic Neutrality, A Conversation with the Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer


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Austria’s Strategic Neutrality, A Conversation with the Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, and especially since you became Federal Chancellor in December 2021, there has been a noticeable shift in Austria’s position. How would you define and how do you explain this position with regard to Austria’s historic neutrality?

Austria’s neutrality is not always easy to explain to our international partners, but it remains essential to us. This is above all for historic reasons: neutrality allowed us to obtain the Soviet Union’s withdrawal, which in 1955 was extraordinary since we were the only ones able to convince the USSR to do so.

However, we always maintained a very active policy of neutrality. Unlike Switzerland, for example, we joined the United Nations right away in 1955. We also actively participated in peace policy (Friedenspolitik). Today, around fifty international organizations are present in Austria and, since the end of the 1970s, Vienna has been home to one of the four United Nations headquarters alongside New York, Geneva, and Nairobi.

Within the European Union, neutrality plays a less visible role. While we remain neutral in military matters, Austria is a full member of the European Union and, consequently, we are an integral part of the Common foreign and security policy.

The Union is currently undergoing a geopolitical transition in which military matters are playing an increasingly central role. This raises the question of whether a defensive Europe is compatible with the status of a neutral state?

We are, and will remain, militarily neutral even if — like all the other member states — our military budget is increasing. The percentage of GDP dedicated to defense will reach 1.5% by 2027 compared to 0.77% in 2022.

The war of aggression in Ukraine has shown that Austria can be an extremely dynamic member without actually supplying lethal weapons or munitions. By supporting successive sanctions packages against Russia as well as insisting on humanitarian aid — which continues to be a strategic matter for Ukraine —, our position is particularly constructive for facilitating peace.

In April 2022, you were the first head of a European government to visit President Zelensky in Kiev as well as Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Do you think a negotiated solution is possible?

I think that a two-fold strategy should be put into place.

On the one hand, we must continue to affirm our unconditional support for Ukraine to avoid giving the impression that, two years after the large-scale invasion, Europe has grown weary — which would inevitably benefit Russia.

On the other hand, we must find a way to negotiate in order to regain peace. For this to happen, we must re-examine a mistake we made. Since 2022, we have constructed our response to the Russian aggression in a bubble, a sort of Western echo chamber. We very quickly agreed upon how we should aid Ukraine and how the war should be ended. Yet a large part of the world — I am thinking specifically of the BRICS — does not share our views and does not understand our position. This is a problem. I strongly believe that the European strategy should be doing everything it can so that India, China, or Brazil — preferably at least two of them — share our position with conviction, thereby bringing non-western powers to the negotiating table. We are still a long way from this, but I believe that the solution to this conflict will be found there.

Since the October 7th Hamas attack, war has clearly spread to the continent’s southern flank. Your position towards Israel has been particularly assertive, marking a shift from the stance of some of your predecessors. You opposed a cease-fire and you criticized South Africa’s actions at the ICJ. Are you worried that with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the rift between the West and the rest of the world is widening?

October 7th was one of the most dramatic moments in Israel’s history. Jewish people were once again raped, hunted, and murdered. Children were slaughtered. We hadn’t seen a massacre at this scale since the Holocaust. Israel’s trauma is compounded by the fact that this attack took place on its own soil.

Through its own history, Austria has a particular responsibility. Some 80 years ago, many Austrians belonged to the generation that participated in the same kind of crimes towards Jews. Remembering this is essential to understanding the importance we attach to our relationship with Israel.

I have noticed that this is a subject that is too often overlooked in our discussions with the rest of the world. Israel is fighting a terrorist organization that committed gruesome acts. But Hamas could immediately end the massacres, simply by surrendering. If it refuses to do so, if it uses civilians as shields, if it accepts civilian casualties, it is because they wish to continue their deadly strategy. At that point, what alternative does Israel have? Its security was attacked and will be again if it does not accomplish its security objectives by eliminating Hamas. As Israel’s friends, it is our responsibility to put this matter back on the table when we deal with our partners in the South.

At the same time, Austria’s position is that humanitarian aid must be able to enter Gaza and that the crimes of violent settlers in the West Bank must end. But these two matters are not connected. We must fight against terrorism in order to reestablish the Israeli state’s security as well as guarantee that the Palestinians have a future. And if we wish to be serious and promote a two-state solution, Israel absolutely needs security guarantees.

You mentioned Austria’s past to explain your position towards Israel. Austria is one of the rare European powers that did not truly experience a colonial past. Is this one of the reasons behind the change in direction you’ve taken with a new strategy of engagement with the South, and Africa in particular?

Since becoming Federal Chancellor, I wanted to bring a new vision of our relationship with Africa by visiting the continent more regularly. This is a vitally important European matter; our future hinges on this relationship.

There is a geographic reason: North Africa is very close to Europe. In the fight against illegal immigration or terrorism, this proximity is an essential factor. But our interest in a relationship with Africa goes beyond a strictly security dimension. We want to put in place future economic cooperation with third party nations outside the Union, to work together on common problems: the ecological transition and protecting the climate. From solar to green hydrogen, there is vast potential.

Here again, Austria’s history of neutrality provides leverage. We are not a part of NATO and at the same time we are members of the European Union. Many Southern countries view this positioning with great interest. 

At its core, could your doctrine be defined using the notion of “strategic neutrality” and an ambition of making Austria a European platform for new alliances?

Yes, absolutely. But this is a position rooted in Austria’s history. Since 1955 with the United Nations, and later with the OSCE, which is headquartered in Austria, we have participated in a significant number of missions abroad compared to the small size of our population.

I think that today it is more important than ever to create safe spaces where, despite conflict, parties can meet to discuss without any external or public pressure. Oftentimes, these are the conditions that allow a conflict to be resolved.

We are two months away from the European elections. What, in your opinion, is the priority of this new political cycle?

We are a union that is open to the world, an export power, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to remain so.  Free trade is less and less a given. From China to the United States, markets are becoming more insulated, especially since the IRA was adopted and many industrial investments are no longer being made in Europe, but rather in the United States. The next mandate should therefore make strengthening our internal market a prime objective.

The Union is being confronted with a series of crises of competitiveness on both the political and economic fronts. On the one hand, it is imperative that we understand that on the global level we, the democratic nations, are a minority.

On the other hand, the Union’s competitiveness will be a central matter in the coming decades and will determine if we will continue to have industrial capacity in Europe. We must therefore define a strategy to stand up to the large economic players such as the United States, China, India (which is rapidly coming into its own), or Brazil.

On what pillars should this rely?

We must take action as quickly as possible to strengthen our competitiveness, starting with a major deregulation package to encourage innovation, research, and production. We must also think about climate protection objectives in order to prevent them from harming the Union’s economic engines.

Do you share the idea that there should be a “pause” in environmental regulations?

I don’t think that a pause is necessary, but rather an adjustment. Like a good Austrian I would say that we need a “Politik mit Hausverstand” (“a commonsense policy”). Let us look at an example. We have focused on banning the sale of new internal-combustion vehicles. What has been the result? We have given the advantage to non-European players, which has greatly harmed us. When considering the ecological transition, we must keep in mind what happened with the steam engine. If we no longer use it, it is not because it was banned by decree, but rather because it was replaced by something more efficient. The freedom to innovate, create, and even conserve, is therefore vital.

Given the changing pace of globalization, do we need to review our trade policy?

It is perhaps a bit difficult to hear today, but globalization was a success. There is more prosperity and greater wealth in the world today. Of course there have been errors and trends to correct. But the world is doing better than thirty years ago.

Our challenge will be to keep going; we must be creative, we need to move forward to conquer new markets such as Africa or the Middle East.

On the other hand, I support the president of the French Republic when he says that free trade agreements must be made in a way that ensures fair competition that puts everyone on equal footing. This is the great question for the future. We must define production standards in Europe that are both competitive as well as making access to our market possible for other states whose production norms differ from ours. This will only work if we develop new formats for free trade agreements.

Enlargement of the European Union will be one of the key matters of the upcoming political cycle. What are, in your opinion, the conditions for this to happen?

First of all, there must be institutional reform. There have already been propositions made by member states in order to remain efficient when it comes to decision-making, such as reducing the number of commissioners. Next, political processes must change so that small and medium states can also contribute. 

The 2004 enlargement to include Central and Eastern European countries was a major success. At the same time, there is still a lot to do starting by, for example, taking into account the brain drain from East to West.    

This is why I think we must change the enlargement process and make it more dynamic. With this goal in mind, we proposed the idea of gradually integrating the countries of the Western Balkans into the European Union. The aim is to ensure that they can prepare for the requirements of EU membership before they join, and benefit from certain policies and programs as soon as they meet the specific conditions of these programs.  

In this respect, I welcome and support President Macron’s initiative to establish the European Political Community. This is an excellent forum to foster dialogue between EU members and non-member countries on equal footing and for involving them in discussions about the major current political matters at the European and global level.

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Gilles Gressani, Austria’s Strategic Neutrality, A Conversation with the Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Apr 2024,

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