“Austria always wants to be a bridge between East and West. When everything is going well in the world, it’s nice: you shop, you’re friends with everyone. The problem is: a bridge has no identity. If East and West quarrel and no one wants that bridge anymore, then what should Austria do? What is Austria then? ”
Few Austrians had such a keen eye for what was happening in this Central European, militarily neutral country as former Vice-Chancellor Erhard Busek. He was educated, had a dry sense of humor and above all the talent to connect national events in a convincing way with broader, international developments. Hanging his identity on a bridge illustrated, in his opinion, how this traumatized country had transformed head-in-the-sand control into an art form. It would break Austria up. Busek died in March, just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Otherwise, he would probably have been one of the signatories of an open letter published by fifty prominent Austrians last week. That letter is a call to stop being a bridge. To finally think about whether and how the country, which since the 1950s has elevated neutrality to a kind of secular religion, can still be neutral today.
“Our security policy is unsustainable,” the signatories write, “and dangerous for the country.” They saw debates erupt in other neutral European countries after February 24 about the future of their neutrality. Finland, which has a direct border with Russia, wants to join NATO. Sweden, which always works with Finland, follows suit. Discussions are raging in Ireland. Even in Switzerland, which is participating in sanctions against Russia, there are calls to get closer to NATO. All of these countries suddenly feel vulnerable, unprotected. Everyone wants extra layers of security. Denmark, a NATO country that has never participated in the EU’s defense initiatives, will soon hold a referendum to join. This is one of those moments in history where countries think that two life insurance policies are better than one. Only in Austria was there silence. Mouse silent.
After two world wars and a bloody civil war in the 1930s, the Austrians still instinctively avoid the conflict
After two world wars and a bloody civil war in the 1930s, the Austrians still instinctively avoid the conflict. Since Austria regained its independence in 1955 (after 1945, the Allies controlled the country), fears of ‘tickling the Russian bear on the tail’ have dominated foreign policy: Moscow withdrew its troops on condition that Austria remained strictly neutral. Austria first joined the EU in 1995 – after the Soviet Union’s implosion. But fears of NATO and fierce anti-Americanism remain. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, President Putin was warmly welcomed in Vienna on several occasions. “Our credo in conflict is always: Stay out!said Busek at the time. “This has been our survival strategy for decades.”
That is no longer possible. “The war in Ukraine is the last warning to the free world to which Austria belongs,” write the fifty, including businessmen, writers and even former ambassadors to Moscow. “Our neutrality was an unassailable myth. (…) Now we are, totally unprepared, in the worst security crisis in Europe since 1945.” They want a national security debate ‘without blinking’ with the citizens. The goal should be to rewrite the security doctrine, which is ten years old. The military is weak and neglected. The earth is practically unprotected.
No one knows if the politicians will address this and how. Austrian politicians continue to be plagued by corruption scandals. None of them travel to Sweden or Finland to see what is going on there. The publication of this letter is already a miracle in this country where people rarely say things straight in the face of each other. This means that the world has completely changed. And that neutrality of the 20th century no longer exists – let alone the Austrian bridge.
Caroline de Gruyter writes weekly about politics and Europe.