Austrians torn between neutrality and NATO

The home of the Austrian Parliament in Vienna is a neo-classical building dating from the 1870s topped with imposing statues

The home of the Austrian Parliament in Vienna is a neo-classical building dating from the 1870s topped with imposing statues. Among them are half a dozen charioteers, each one frozen in mid-flight behind a team of galloping horses.

The Austrian Chancellor, Mr Viktor Klima, will be hoping that the various elements of his government and party do not follow their example: for the brave charioteers are about to race off in different directions.

The issue on which the two government parties are trying to reach accommodation is whether to join NATO. Mr Klima's Social Democrats are largely in favour of retaining Austrian neutrality, while the junior coalition partner - the conservative People's Party - is pushing for NATO membership.

The opposition parties are similarly divided. The debate so far has not just touched on security policy, costs and international relations; like the run-up to EU membership in 1995, it raises the question of what it means to be both Austrian and European following the end of the Cold War.


Austrian neutrality was a fundamental part of the 1955 deal for the withdrawal of the four occupying powers which had ruled the country since the end of the second World War. It was the price exacted by the former Soviet Union.

For many Austrians, neutrality came to have positive associations such as sovereignty, independence, and - after two world wars - staying out of conflicts. During the Cold War, the country was a bridge between east and west, taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees after the uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Vienna became the UN's "third city" as the location for several international bodies. The end of the Warsaw Pact was heralded by the opening of the border between Hungary and Austria in 1989. In the new geopolitical landscape, Austria joined the EU in 1995. It has also taken part in NATO's Partnership for Peace.

Poland and Austria's immediate neighbours, Hungary and the Czech Republic, are now about to become the first group of former Warsaw Pact countries to join NATO.

The two largest parties have ruled together in a "grand coalition" since 1986 - and, indeed, for much of the time since the war. Despite differences on much more divisive issues than neutrality, they have what one observer described as "an uncanny ability to reach a compromise".

Those pushing for NATO membership talk of bringing stability to the region, and of taking part in decision-making which is going to affect Austria anyway. There is a consensus that no military threat exists at the moment, although that is no guarantee of future stability - and Austria is closer than many NATO members to potential trouble spots. They point out the growing links between the EU, the Western European Union (WEU) and NATO.

The leader of the People's Party, Dr Wolfgang Schussel, is also Foreign Minister. He talks of Austria having a "remnant" of its original neutrality. "We are in favour of full membership of NATO and the WEU," he says. "According to what is already agreed and spelt out in the treaties of Amsterdam and Maastricht, in the end there would be a merger between the European Union and the WEU. I do not fear these developments; on the contrary I would appreciate them."

As one of the smaller European countries, with a population of eight million people, there is a discernible desire to participate in international organisations, and also to be taken seriously by them as full member. "If you want to have a political say in the European Union, if you want to participate in EMU, there is no argument for stepping outside of the security and foreign policy arrangements," he said. "And if you want to make foreign policy, I think you have to integrate security questions as well."

The Social Democrats are not as united as their coalition partner. However, nearly all say "No" to NATO, or at least "Not yet". Dr Peter Kostelka, the leader of the parliamentary party, wants to avoid a polarised continent: "I think that we have a responsibility to our children to do everything we can not to raise a new Iron Curtain in Europe." He wants security to be strengthened by helping to make others feel more secure. But when it comes to party politics, Dr Kostelka has no problem with going on the offensive, even with a coalition partner. "I don't know why the People's Party members are making these problems for themselves," he says with a smile, as if watching with satisfaction as an old adversary walks into a trap. "Neutrality is very popular in Austria; I don't have a problem with my position when it comes to the election next year."

The party with the most passionate vision of neutrality is the Green Party: it has nine of the 183 seats in parliament. Its leader, Ms Madeleine Petrovic, wants a policy of "active neutrality", where the country is involved in conflict-resolution, monitoring, peacekeeping and support for human rights around the world.

"Europe is going to need its neutral countries. Neutrality does not mean that you look away if armed conflict happens, or that you don't engage in human rights questions; it means the opposite."

Walt Kilroy is taking part in the Paris-based Journalists in Europe study programme, while on a leave of absence from RTE.