NEUTRALITY does not have to mean either passivity or pacifism on the international stage. Nor does it have to mean opposition to a new EU role in security. On the contrary, the best way to achieve a sustainable peace in Europe is to be pro-active and "to develop the potential of the EU as a peace project
This is the thrust of an important joint Swedish-Finnish initiative this week - the first of its kind - on the future shape of European security, which is being studied closely and sympathetically in Ireland and has been well received in Austria.
The approach was set out on Saturday in a joint article by the two neutral countries' Foreign Ministers, Ms Lena Hjelm Wallen and Ms Tarja Halonen respectively, for the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter and Finland's Helsingin Sanomat. Yesterday the initiative was presented formally to member-states and it is expected to be submitted to the Inter-Governmental Conference next month.
The common position shares most of the assumptions set out in the Irish Government's White Paper on Foreign Policy, distinguishing clearly between, on the one hand, "territorial defence and obligations under military alliances" - obligations incompatible with neutrality and on the other, "co-operation in crisis management", which it regards as an imperative for the EU in Europe's new security environment.
Above all, it insists that any such role for the EU must be "credible" and hence have real clout both in terms of effective decision-making procedures and, if necessary, the ability to deliver military punch.
Where the document goes beyond the stated Irish position is in not distinguishing explicitly between traditional peacekeeping and peace enforcement, ruled out for Ireland in the White Paper, although it insists all military action must be UN-mandated.
The Swedish and Finnish governments have been more explicit about how they see the EU members controlling the Western European Union when it acts on the EU's behalf.
In Stockholm the article has provoked some limited controversy among the smaller opposition parties over its willingness to accept any link with the WEU. In Finland, it has been broadly welcomed.
"Developments in ex-Yugoslavia," the article argues, "have taught us significant lessons that are valid far beyond the scope of this particular conflict. Yugoslavia is an example of a new pattern of conflict, where a major war is not the primary threat. Instead a new threat, springing from domestic conditions, has emerged. Social, economic and cultural insecurity are a breeding ground for ethnic and religious conflicts, organised crime and undemocratic behaviour.
"In our view the new situation demands a new approach to security ". That will be based, the article argues, on new conflict prevention measures, but also where conflict breaks out, a necessity to send in peacekeeping forces. "The most important question we must ask ourselves in connection with the Inter-Governmental Conference is how we can enhance the EU's role in promoting peace and security. To a greater extent than hitherto, the member- states must be a driving force in the prevention of conflicts and crises and be involved in the early management of such situations when they do arise.
"In order to achieve this, the EU must, for the purposes of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, determined by all the member-states on equal terms, be in a position to apply the whole gamut of instruments, from conflict prevention measures of various kinds to armed peacekeeping actions.
The latter, the ministers insist, should always be based on a mandate from the UN or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and an individual decision by each member whether or not to participate in particular missions. "The EU must be capable of speedy and effective action in all phases of a conflict. It would save much human suffering if we could break vicious circles and deal with conflicts before they get out of control.
The ministers acknowledge the need for a closer relationship with the WEU and suggest that when the EU deems military engagements necessary, "all member-states would be allowed to take an equal part in decision-making and execution of the operations carried out by the WEU on its behalf." Operational decisions would be left to the WEU and those involved in the actual operations.
But they warn that a merger of the WEU and the EU would not be compatible "with Finland's and Sweden's policy of non-participation in military alliances." The Government White Paper also effectively rules this out, in making it clear Ireland is not ready yet to sign up to the mutual defence guarantees in the WEU Treaty's Article 5. ,
The article warns that the danger facing Europe is not that the EU may become too powerful the inter-governmental character of EU foreign policy means that nation-states retain firm control but that failure to address deficiencies in the current system will tend to weaken cohesion and reduce the ability of the EU to contribute to security and development in Europe and neighbouring regions.
"An active, credible and forward-looking policy is essential in order to ensure that this never happens. We must have a crisis management capability that is based on solidarity, humanism and enlightened self-interest and that can meet any threats to peace and security that may emerge in our times."
As a definition of "active neutrality", that elusive notion so dear to Ireland's neutrality lobby, it bears very serious consideration.