Divided Austria unites in opposition to EU army

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said that he cannot imagine the country's armed forces under the command of an external power. [Getmilitaryphotos/ Shutterstock]

Calls for an “EU army” to be set up have increased since Donald Trump’s US election victory, but neutral Austria, at least, is handling the issue very carefully. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs Elmar Brok expects the global order to “change dramatically”, as a result of Trump defeating Hillary Clinton. For decades, Europe has benefited from US-backed collective security, but that could change soon.

For this reason, the cogs are already in motion on discussions about a common security and defence policy. Brok also added that even Austria should not rely on being surrounded by a defensive belt of NATO countries; Austria is not a part of the military alliance.

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Spain’s former foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, told EURACTIV Spain that now is not the time for alarmist reactions to Donald Trump’s US election victory and that Brexit could provide Spain with an opportunity to increase its international standing.

However, the alpine nation’s main political leaders appear to have been unmoved by this warning.  While acknowledging the disruptive force the US election result is likely to have on the EU and the need to forge something of a European revival, the theme of security and defence policy has been more or less absent in their discussions so far.

Austria has remained neutral for the last 61 years and joining the then-European Economic Community was not possible in the 1980s because of its stance on the Cold War.

As relations with Moscow thawed and the USSR collapsed, accession talks began in earnest. The issue of neutrality never emerged as an issue during the negotiations and it has remained an almost sacred aspect of Austrian foreign policy, as demonstrated by opinion polls.

In practice, of course, Austria still participated in political and humanitarian efforts in the Balkans and other missions as part of the NATO Partnership for Peace, of which it is a member. But when it comes to the EU and defence, this is an entirely different matter.

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Austrian political reaction has been expectedly negative. The country’s Chancellor, Christian Kern, has indicated that he cannot imagine the Austrian army being under the control of a non-Austrian high command. For Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil, the idea of an EU army is incompatible with the country’s neutrality and he has therefore outright rejected it.

As much as Austria’s two main parties, the SPÖ and ÖVP, would like to have different opinions on the issue, there actually appears to be a consensus between the coalition partners. Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has confirmed that he is against any measure that goes against Austria’s neutral stance, so a common European army has not even been discussed.

Even for the chalk-and-cheese presidential candidates, Alexander van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer, opposing an EU army is a uniting factor.

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There are, of course, voices that are not so fierce in their opposition to the idea. Vice-Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner said that an EU army could be an option that would prove necessary, which is a view that is shared by the country’s European Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, and the ÖVP’s European Parliament fraction chief, Otmar Karas.

Moreover, many constitutional lawyers believe that Austria’s neutral stance would not be in contradiction with membership of the EU army.

Austrian military experts also maintain that preparations have to be begun now, but that a final product would not be ready for the next decade or so. The EU member states have cut back dramatically on their military expenditure in recent years. In fact, there are more armoured vehicles currently in crisis-hit Eastern Ukraine than are on the books of Germany and France combined.

Germany and France seek stronger EU defence after Brexit

Germany and France have outlined plans to deepen European military cooperation, a document showed on Monday (12 September), as Britain’s exit from the European Union removes one of the biggest obstacles to stronger EU defence in tandem with NATO.

Building an effective European force, including a high-tech industry, is not going to happen overnight. The EU’s eastern members still believe that their best option is to rely on the umbrella currently offered by NATO. Clearly, for now, increased involvement in the Middle East and Africa is not an option that Europe can consider.

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