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Kajsa Sprangers-Boom: Neutrality in a European Context


When the French king Karl VI 1408 took a neutral stance in the conflict between the Popes in Rome and Avignon, he partly introduced a new way for parties not directly involved (third states) to coexist peacefully. Later, in 1625, Hugo Grotius conceptualised neutrality the following way: the neutral state should support the party which fights for a legitimate reason, but not aid the illegitimate state. However, should it be impossible to declare which party fought for the right cause, the neutral state should allow for free passage through its territory and simultaneously win both parties hearts, to act as humanitarian ombudsman where needed. Though, what was considered a legitimate cause for conflict was vastly based on the subjective interests of the ‘neutral’ state. Thus, the objectively neutral state which Grotius aimed to achieve seemed too superficial at the time. However, Grotius saw states not as rulers, but as political actors, which came to influence how we regard this question today. Later, as the just element of wars was questioned, the concept of a legitimate war began to fade away (Cramér, 1998, pp. 55-60). This essay aims to analyse the evolution of the concept, apply it to current states and evaluate whether such a stance is compatible with a membership in the European Union.


Over the years, neutral states have caught a slightly different connotation. For permanent neutral states, as we know them today, a few criteria apply. Firstly, their territory may not be used for wars. It is the state’s liability to ensure this and maintain sovereign status. However, the neutral state is not liable to have a military defence (Cramér, 1998, p. 70). Secondly, they must agree not to take part in conflicts. Thus, unlike in the late 10th century, Oppenheim states that ‘’neutrality may be defined as impartiality adopted by third states towards belligerents and recognized by belligerents, such as attitude creating rights and duties between the impartial states and the belligerents’’ (Cramér, 1998, p. 108) 

However, it has been widely discussed whether expressing sympathy or criticism towards other states is a breach of neutrality or not, given that it is a sovereign right. Therefore, debaters claim that neutrality is more of practicality rather than an ideology. Regardless, it can be concluded that neutral states often do not express such opinions, out of convenience (Cramér, 1998, p. 48). 


Upon addressing neutral states in Europe, people instantly think of Switzerland and Sweden as historically, as well as the current neutral powers. Switzerland was declared permanently neutral back in 1815 and have since hosted headquarters for neutral organisations such as the UN and the Red Cross. Sweden, on the other hand, never had a legal foundation, such as laying it down in the constitution, for its neutrality. This allowed Sweden to go from allegedly neutral, to post-neutral upon joining the European Union (EU) in 1995 (Ferreira-Pereira, 2005, p. 466). 


Membership in the EU comes with several liabilities. The main principle is to incubate and promote policies which unite the European people and create a European identity in political contexts. Therefore, the Maastricht Treaty was adopted in 1992, aiming to increase the difficulty of retaining neutral within the EU. Hence, during his time as Prime Minister, Carl Bildt held that Sweden aims to be ‘’non-aligned in peacetime, aiming to be neutral in war’’. Upon Sweden’s admittance to the European Union, the phrase came to be adapted and later phased out, only to result in an agreement of military non-alignment (Rieker, 2006, p. 70). This allows Sweden to refrain from obtaining a full NATO-membership, in accordance with the popular vote amongst Sweden’s inhabitants, whilst still staying involved in many NATO operations (Ydén et al., 2019). However, roughly 15 years later, during his time as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt explains it as if Sweden would be prepared to become allied should it be in their interest (Swedish Radio, 2011), and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anna Lindh has stated that should an armed conflict break out, Sweden is unlikely to stay neutral (The Economist, 2001). It seems as if Sweden both wants to have the pie and eat it. 


In recent years we have seen a rise in Swedish involvement with NATO, however. For instance, Sweden repeatedly lends out soldiers to other countries, namely Norway’s, military exercises (NATO, 2018). Simultaneously, Sweden has sent troops to e.g. Libya and Mali on request by NATO and the UN’s security council (Swedish Armed Forces, n.d.) Therefore, it seems evident to conclude that obtaining a membership in the European Union, and possibly other multilateral organisations, comes with certain liabilities which makes impossible for states to maintain a neutral stance.


Written by Kajsa Sprangers-Boom, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons

Reference list

Cramér, P., (1998).  Neutralitet och Europeisk Integration. Nordstedts Juridik: Stockholm. 

Ferreira-Pereira, L. (2005). Swedish military neutrality in the post-cold war: “old habits die hard.” Perspectives on European Politics and Society, 6(3), 463–489. Retrieved on June 20th 2020 from https://doi.org/10.1080/15705850508438928

NATO. (2018) The Swedish Armed Forces participate in Trident Juncture. Retrieved on June 23rd 2020 from https://shape.nato.int/news-archive/2018/the-swedish-armed-forces-participate-in-trident-juncture-

Rieker, P. (2006) Europeanization of National Security Identity: The EU and the changing security identities of the Nordic states

Swedish Armed Forces. (n.d.) Libya - UP. Retrieved on June 23rd 2020 form https://www.forsvarsmakten.se/en/archived-pages/about/our-mission-in-sweden-and-abroad/completed-operations/libya-up/

Swedish Radio. (2011). What does it mean that Sweden is ‘‘non-aligned’’. Retrieved on June 2nd 2020 from https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=4454748

The Economist. (2001). The past is past. Retrieved on June 2nd 2020 from https://www.economist.com/europe/2001/10/11/the-past-is-past

Ydén, K., Berndtsson, J., & Petersson, M. (2019). Sweden and the issue of NATO membership: exploring a public opinion paradox. Defence Studies, 19(1), 1–18. Retrieved on June 22nd 2020 from https://doi.org/10.1080/14702436.2019.1568192

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