“We are already at War” – Erhard Busek

Austria’s Former Vice Chancellor Insists That Austrian Neutrality is Long Since Obsolete

A former vice chancellor argued that Austrian neutrality has become effectively obsolete as a political stance, in a panel discussion of Oct. 8, organized by the Austrian daily Der Standard.  During the event entitled ‘Neutralität – Abschaffen oder Bewahren’ (Neutrality – Dismantle or Preserve), Erhard Busek provoked a heated debate at the Montagsgespräch, chaired by Editor-in Chief Alexandra Födel-Schmid at the Haus der Musik, in Vienna’s 1st District.

“We are already at war,“ Busek (ÖVP) said in his passionate appeal; “However, it is comfortable for Austrians not to take notice of the situation“

Referring to the international terrorism that caught up with Europe in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, Busek, now coordinator of the EU Stability Pact for Southern and Eastern Europe, spoke with US-style rhetoric of “a declaration of war between different political systems.”

On the other side sat Hannes Swoboda, Leader of the Austrian Social Democrats in the European Parliament, and Ulrike Lunacek, Foreign Policy spokesperson and MEP for the Green Party, demanding instead “a policy of active neutrality” to evolve as the international political landscape changes.

While Swoboda seemed casual about semantics – creating the term paktungebunden (lit. unattached to a pact or military alliance) to replace neutral – Busek’s message was clear and direct: “Abolish it,” he said.

Both Lunacek and Swoboda vigorously dismissed Busek’s provocative comments as “dangerous.”

“This causes fear,” Lunacek said, “We usually define war differently.” Even the current controversial US President George W. Bush “retreated on the expression ‘War on Terror’,” added Swoboda.

The question of whether Austria should abandon its neutral status is not new but has been a recurring theme ever since the fall of communism and the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact in 1991.

However, this year the debate became heated again following the Austrian national holiday of Oct. 26. Austria gained its independence after World War II by declaring its neutral status on Oct. 26, 1955 by an act of parliament, which became part of the Austrian constitution. Modelled after Switzerland’s ‘perpetual neutrality,’ Austria nevertheless saw itself as part of Western Europe during the Cold War. Austria joined the United Nations in 1956, a step Switzerland didn’t take until 2002.

Today, 77% of Austrians support their country’s neutral status, approval rates unheard of decades ago. Not surprisingly therefore, Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, declared in his address on this year’s national holiday that, “Austria has always understood its neutrality as basis for a confident appearance. And in defining its neutral policy, it did not orient itself by antiquated role models, but has defined its role independently. Evident results were joining the United Nations and the accession to the European Union.”

Indeed, Austria’s Neutrality Declaration was modified to adjust for political developments, as Austria joined the EU and NATO’s Partnership for Peace in 1995, allowing Austrian troops to take part in humanitarian, peacekeeping and military missions sanctioned by UN resolutions, amending Article 23f, also enabling Austria to participate in European defence policy.

In fact, Austria has supplied soldiers for international peacekeeping missions since the 1960s, and currently there are 1,100 troops abroad, the largest contingent of about 600 in Kosovo – a NATO mission with a UN mandate.

The discussion today centres on the EU battle groups, for which Austria will make troops available by 2012. Defence Minster Norbert Darabos, a Social Democrat, signalled that some 200 soldiers might be joining the multilateral forces, to be deployed for humanitarian missions supported by a UN mandate. However, if the EU deploys the Battle Groups without a UN mandate – the possibility laid-out by former Austrian Foreign Minster and current EU Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Benita Ferrero-Waldner in a recent interview with Der Standard – Darabos believes Austria will have the option to opt out.

While Austrian Social Democrats and Greens see neutrality as a continuing possibility, Conservative analysts emphasise the possibility of joining NATO. In August this year, the so-called Perspective Group of the ÖVP, set up after election losses in 2006, proposed the abolition of neutrality in the long-term.

The debate over NATO and Austrian security issues can be traced back at least to 2000 and the distinguished Austrian commenter and journalist Peter Michael Lingens’ Wehrloses Österreich?, pleading that joining NATO would be the cheapest way to ensure Austria’s safety.

In 2001, it seemed possible that a far-right government might do exactly that, as Jörg Haider’s FPÖ – then a supporter of NATO membership –joined forces in parliament with the ÖVP. A new defence doctrine clearly in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was drawn up by the end of the year and included the option of joining NATO; a turn of events that the current Defence Minister Norbert Darabos feels uncomfortable with.

“Security Policy cannot be reduced to a purely financial question, ‘What is the effect of neutrality?’ ” he stated in an interview with The Vienna Review. “It has given Austria peace, stability and wealth for the past 50 years. It has [also] earned Austria great respect in the world for our peacekeeping missions.”

The question, therefore, is not what the financial costs are, but rather the benefits addressed.

“Neutrality is worth it,” Darabos concludes.  However, the fact that the far-right government has been pursuing the NATO option more seriously can be seen in the case of Eurofighter-war planes – first 24, then reduced to 18 and now 15 planes. With €2 billion initially allocated, it was the largest purchase in the country’s history, deeply controversial and the subject of a parliamentary enquiry last spring.

Overall, both sides seem to be feeling their way toward greater responsibility in sharing Europe’s defence burdens. Darabos confirmed that the initial purchase of highly sophisticated, new war planes suggests that Austria should have been able to participate in NATO military missions abroad.

“But,” he said, “with me as Defence Minster, military missions abroad with Austrian (Eurofighter) planes will never happen.” At the same time, however, he praises Austria’s military engagement in peacekeeping missions and stresses their international political significance.

Conservatives are cautious about openly suggesting NATO membership at this stage. But as Erhard Busek suggests, they are convinced that

“Europe needs other means to secure stability and peace.”

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