EU Neutrals as “Strategic Free-riders”? On the Necessity of an Expanded Security Notion

By Pascal Lottaz

This article first appeared in German in the Wiener Zeitung
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

EU neutrals are viewed with suspicion not only by transatlantic networks but also targeted by proponents of the EU defense community. In a new publication by the pan-European think tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the seven EU defense outsiders—Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Ireland, and Malta—are discussed in terms of their attitudes towards European security. A clear bias on the part of the editors emerges. Austria, Ireland, and Malta fare the worst, being labeled as “strategic free-riders” of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). The discussion reveals that as long as EU security is primarily perceived as a military challenge, the neutrals cannot expect much favor from traditional security thinkers.

An ECFR Analysis 

In June 2021, the ECFR published a collection of essays under the editorial supervision of Clara Sophie Cramer and Ulrike Franke, examining the extent to which neutral EU member states or states with exceptions (such as Denmark) engage in the CSDP and what can be expected of them in the future. The essays primarily focus on Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty—the mutual assistance clause under the CSDP—and its operationalization in recent years, including the effects of the “Irish clause” and the Danish exception. While the six country analyses exhibit high quality and are worth reading, the framing by the editors leaves little doubt that they view the outsiders of EU security thinking with suspicion. While Finland and Sweden are still categorized benignly as “nonaligned only in name” and Denmark, although not neutral (as a NATO member), enjoys a special arrangement in the CSDP, being referred to as “the odd one out,” Austria, Ireland, and Malta are labeled as “strategic free-riders.” The latter three are the only EU members with constitutional provisions on neutrality. Finland and Sweden have never incorporated neutrality into their constitutions, and politically, both no longer describe themselves as neutral but as non-aligned. Consequently, they differ in their deeper integration into the structures of the CSDP and a higher level of overall European defense readiness compared to the other four.

Free Riders and Security as Defense 

Austria receives the most criticism. Gustav Gressel, a Senior Policy Fellow at the ECFR and a former employee of the Austrian Ministry of Defense, paints a bleak picture of his home country. In the essay titled “A Lifelong Free-rider,” Austria is described as having survived the Cold War only due to good luck. At the same time Vienna, he claims, has internalized a defense mentality of depending on other. Gressel believes that the main factor for Austria’s unique path lies not in its neutrality but in the lack of willingness to defend itself, reflected in a small and weak military. The capabilities of the Austrian Armed Forces are only suitable for marginal operations and would not be able to defend Austria—or Europe—in a serious crisis: “whatever defence ambitions the Austrian government may declare in Brussels, there is no army capable of fulfilling them.” Therefore, Gressel does not expect Austria to agree to a mandatory EU defense union but rather anticipates Vienna to veto it if such a vote were to take place in the European Council. He sees this as an expression of a “rigid isolationism” prevailing in all Austrian political parties. The political declarations of compatibility between Austrian neutrality and the European project are seen as a smokescreen to avoid making significant military expenditures. The conclusion is that the free-riding Austria relies on its advantageous location surrounded by EU and NATO states rather than building its own capabilities.

The editors’ final analysis is pragmatic. “Neutral states could not be part of such an alliance without breaking the minimum requirement of neutrality: non-alignment. All talk of a ‘European army’ appears equally farcical in this context.” Interestingly, at this point, the normative reason for the relatively negative assessment of the EU neutrals becomes apparent. The conclusion states that the key question is “how the EU can become a closer and more reliable defence alliance – as may become necessary in the future.” Those who start from the assumption that a defense or military union is the need of the hour are predisposed to perceive the neutrals as obstacles. This assessment is understandable on one hand since the entire logic of a military alliance is based on the premise of “one for all, all for one.” Formally and theoretically, neutral or non-aligned foreign policies should be incompatible with a military alliance. However, three important points must be considered.

Alliances shape their members

On one hand, alliances are never solely dedicated to external protection; they also serve as a means of internal norm-setting. Ismay Hastings’ statement, the first Secretary General of NATO, that the purpose behind NATO’s establishment was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” can be understood in this context. Furthermore, let us not forget that the Warsaw Pact was never directed externally but rather internally, as it invaded its own members whenever they attempted to distance themselves from the alliance and communism. Military alliances are double-edged swords. Therefore, the inclusion of not only EU-neutral countries but also all EU members in any defense alliance necessitates a process of reaching consensus on a European approach to security.

Security architectures can be asymmetric

Secondly, maximalist approaches to security issues – either one is part of an equal alliance or one is excluded – often do not lead to the ultimate resolution of a security architecture. Since the end of World War II, Japan and the United States have been close defense partners in the transpacific region, with Tokyo and Washington agreeing to an asymmetric security deal. The United States contractually guaranteed the protection of the Japanese archipelago in exchange for military bases on its territory. Until 2015, Japan had not made a reciprocal commitment to the defense of the United States and its military installations. This security “grand bargain” allowed Japan to rapidly recover its industrial capacities after the war by limiting military expenditures to a minimum, while the United States derived numerous advantages from its “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the Pacific. Although Japan was not a neutral state, this agreement demonstrates that security arrangements in the real world do not necessarily need to be symmetrical in order to function. The best example on this side of Eurasia is Belarus, which, like Ireland, Malta, and Austria, has a neutrality article in its constitution, despite being deeply integrated into an economic and defense union (known as the Union State) with Moscow. In this context, the Belarusians often refer to their situation as “de facto neutrality.” During the height of the Ukraine conflict, Minsk acted as a mediator, and through the Minsk Dialogues, Belarus has sought to achieve a Finland-like profile. Hence, if we can consider Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Austria as EU neutrals, we can also speak in a similar manner of Belarus and, to some extent, Moldova as “Russia’s neutrals” (without implying an integration process).

Security does not equal defense

Lastly, we should discuss what “security” actually means and whether it can only be achieved through military means. If so, then neutrals undoubtedly face a challenging situation. However, let us consider that military alliances function much like insurance policies (one may want to have them, but one hopes they are never needed), it should be clear that neutrals have much to contribute to maintaining peace in Europe. The OSCE owes much of its existence to the initiatives and diplomatic efforts of Finland, Austria, Switzerland, and also Yugoslavia, and it is no coincidence that the discussions on the Iranian nuclear agreement are currently taking place in Vienna, while Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin met in Switzerland to seek rapprochement. Furthermore, neutral states also serve “hard” security functions as buffers that defuse the security dilemma. During the Cold War, Finland had a security agreement with the USSR, which obligated the country to defend the Soviet Union if an enemy attempted to pass through Finland. Accordingly, Urho Kekkonen defined Finland’s neutrality as serving the purpose of preventing a situation that would trigger the alliance clause with the USSR.

As diplomatic outposts and geopolitical buffers, neutral states can indeed contribute to the security of Europe in ways that alliance states cannot provide per se. Hence, neutrals should be understood as “military-strategic free-riders” that reciprocate diplomatically and in the humanitarian realm. Let’s just consider the immense security risk a US/NATO war with Iran would pose to the EU and how valuable it is that the EU, through Austria, can provide the diplomatic space for preventing such a scenario. However, to engage in such discussions, it is necessary to broaden the understanding of “security” beyond a purely military question and consider it in a larger context. In general, the EU’s security question should not be viewed solely in terms of defense capability but, conversely, defense issues should be part of the overall European security discussion. Within this broader framework, the structural contributions of neutrals can be strategically utilized for the security of Europe.