Neutrality and support for Ukraine: Austria’s tightrope walk
Neutrality has long been at the core of Austria’s post-World War II identity. While the country pledged millions to support Ukraine and has supported the EU sanctions against Russia, it also wants to keep the communication channels with the Kremlin open, Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner told EURACTIV Germany in an exclusive interview.
According to data from the Kiel Institute for World Economy, Austria has pledged more than €580 Million to Ukraine – mostly in humanitarian aid. “Every request that comes from Ukraine, everything that is needed, is checked by us and then also delivered,” Tanner stressed.
However, the neutrality that is enshrined in the Austrian constitution won’t allow for any weapon deliveries.
“It is important to emphasise that while we are militarily neutral according to our constitution and legal regulations, we are certainly not politically neutral when it comes to Ukraine,” Tanner told EURACTIV. “That is why we have supported all EU sanctions from the very beginning. Because the point is to stand in solidarity with Ukraine,” she added.
Despite this political commitment to Ukraine, Austria still seeks to keep channels with Russia open.
While the EU has put all members of the Russian Duma on its sanction list in February 2022, Austria will open its gates for Russian parliamentarians later this month, when the OSCE assembly meeting in Vienna.
The decision has been heavily criticised by EU allies, especially since the parliamentary assembly will meet exactly one year after Russia started its war against Ukraine.
“I think it’s important not only to help but also to keep diplomatic channels open. That is certainly happening,” Tanner stressed, adding that “We have a great history in Austria as mediators.”
“It’s just difficult, as long as the weapons are talking, diplomacy is put in the second row, so to speak. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to make an effort every day. And that also happens,” Tanner emphasised.
Austria, due to its proximity to Ukraine, has been a preferred destination for Ukrainian refugees following Russia’s attack on the country, taking in “over 50,000 war refugees,” Tanner stressed.
“We have taken them in and looked after them. I think that is a very important achievement,” she explained, adding that Austria’s government had ensured that the Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, received access to childcare and schooling.
Simultaneously, Austria has also been on the receiving end of an asylum seeker influx comparable to that during the refugee crisis of 2015, putting additional stress on the system. In 2022, applications for asylum tripled to more than 100,000, the largest spike registered in the EU.
Meanwhile, Hungary, which recently struck a migration pact with Austria and Serbia, registered a mere 46 applications within its borders. “That says it all, I think,” Tanner noted, adding that “this is a cause for concern because it shows that obviously, the Europe-wide system is not working.”
That has become the reason that Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Interior Minister Gerhard Karner are “fighting to face this problem together as the European Union,” she said.
In doing so, the Austrian government has been looking for allies ahead of a special EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Wednesday (8 February). “This is an everyday task,” she stressed, adding that Karner had gone to Italy to meet his counterpart and discuss the issue.
(Nikolaus Kurmayer | EURACTIV.de)