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EU constitution leads Austria to question its neutrality

10 December 2003, 15:34 CET

The mooted mutual defence clause in the European Union constitution has sparked a heated debate in Austria over whether the country should drop its almost 50-year-old tradition of neutrality.

The ruling coalition between the far-right and the conservatives are mulling a compromise tabled by the Italian EU presidency Tuesday and appears ready to capitulate.

But such a move is strongly opposed by the Socialists and the Greens who say the binding obligation written into the clause runs counter to the Austrian constitution.

Defence Minister Guenther Platter, a member of the conservative People's Party, argued this week that "Austria can agree to a mutual defence clause and still preserve its status as a neutral state."

Andreas Khol, the president of parliament and a fellow conservative, has also came voiced support for the clause, pointing out that neutrality is partly a matter of how you define it.

"An amendment to the constitution in 1998 allows us to participate in peacekeeping operations," notably in Bosnia-Hercegovina and the rest of the Balkans, he said.

"At the time we defined neutrality in the purely military sense and reserved the right to take part in conflict-prevention missions. This clause gives a different definition to neutrality."

Former defence minister Herbert Scheibner, who now heads the parliamentary group of the far-right Freedom Party, declared that Austria "should accept the mutual defence clause in as far as it can decide for itself" whether it should offer help to a fellow EU member state under attack.

But the main opposition Social-Democratic Party and the Greens say the defence pact implies an automatic obligation to a help a partner under attack.

"The mutual defence clause stands in contradiction to our neutrality," the president of the Social-Democrats, Alfred Gusenbauer, said.

"This means that if Austria accepts this clause, it will give up its neutrality."

Eva Glawischnig, the spokeswoman for the Greens, told reporters: "This means that the 'big' EU nations are single-handedly writing the defence policy of the EU."

Austria has been a neutral state since 1955 when its statehood was restored after World War II.

The constitution adopted that year stated: "With a view to preserving its independence and to protecting its territory, Austria proclaims its neutrality ... and forbids itself to become part of any military alliance."

Since the September 11 attacks this principle has repeatedly been questioned.

Chancellor Wolgang Schuessel has said that faced with attacks on the democratic institutions of the "civilised world", but only in that case, there could be no question of neutrality.

He has even signalled that Austria could join NATO.

Austria increasinly resembles a lone island in central Europe in terms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). It borders Italy and Germany, who are old members, Hungary and the Czech Republic, who joined recently, and Slovakia and Slovenia who are set to do so in 2004. Only Switzerland, on its werstern border, remains staunchly neutral.

But Schuessel's government lacks the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to amend the constitution and Austrians remain very attached to their neutrality, which is symbol of the independence they regained in 1955.

It notably allowed them to flourish during the Cold War, when they managed to remain on the sidelines of the major international conflicts.

"Our politicians have a pliable definition of neutrality," said Anton Pelinka, a political analyst based at the University of Innsbruck.

"They think it refers strictly to military neutrality and does not pertain to all the other areas of foreign policy."

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