Military budgets are increasing around Europe as once-neutral countries join NATO and long-established members ramp up defence spending in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The list of EU countries which are not members of NATO has dwindled to just four out of 27 with the decisions of Finland, who joined in 2023, and Sweden who signed up earlier this year, to abandon their long-established neutrality.

The four remaining outside NATO are Austria, Ireland and the two small Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Malta.

None of these EU members can be described as ideologically neutral and membership in the European Union, under the Lisbon Treaty, entails an untested commitment to mutual support to fellow members under threat.

Attachment to NATO is resisted in all four for different reasons and none seem likely to follow the examples of Finland and Sweden.

Broader conflict

Austria is close to the front line should there be a broader conflict with Russia but public opinion remains on the side of neutrality, enshrined in the constitution since the 1955 Austrian State Treaty.

Cyprus ceded sovereign territory to the United Kingdom on independence in 1960 and the UK maintains permanent military bases on the island, so Cypriot neutrality would not survive an actual conflict. The northern part of the island is in effect occupied by Turkey, another important NATO member.

In both Malta and Ireland, the continuing reluctance to join NATO is a political choice as it was until recently in Finland and Sweden.

There are two powerful motivations for neutrality in Ireland, the desire to reduce the risk of entanglement in external conflicts and, less openly acknowledged, the substantial annual savings afforded through keeping the lid on military expenditure.

Neutrality is seen as an expression of sovereignty and echoes the success of the 1939 decision to keep out of World War II. Virtually every small European country sought to make the same choice, as initially did the United States, but Norway, Denmark and the Benelux countries were invaded anyway. What spared Ireland was the inability of Germany to invade and the eventual success of the UK and its allies. Ireland managed to stay out of the war due to circumstances rather than principled neutrality.

Armed belligerence

Only two countries in modern Europe have chosen armed belligerence in defence of their former dominance over neighbours, Serbia in the 1990s and the Russian Federation under Vladamir Putin. Serbia was defeated at great cost and no longer threatens, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has already altered Europe’s defence architecture and seen a sharp increase in military spending. Smaller countries on the front line have responded by abandoning their traditional neutrality and joining NATO, accepting that greater military expenditure is a consequence. For Ireland there are better choices.

Defence policy is not a priority if the threat from belligerents can safely be ignored, or cannot credibly be deterred.

In the unlikely event that western European countries come to be threatened by Russia, Ireland will be last in line, as it was for Germany in World War II.

Moreover, there is no unilateral commitment to military expenditure which would make any difference. Nonetheless, there is persistent support, and not just from the armed forces, for a bigger defence budget, alongside the numerous other spending pressures.

The decision to avoid NATO membership makes perfect sense, and accords with public opinion, provided the accompanying benefit of a small military budget is acknowledged. NATO members are now expected to devote at least 2% of GDP to defence and some, including the UK, have stated their intention to exceed this figure.

Annual extra cost

If Ireland were to follow suit the annual extra cost would be as much as €5bn indefinitely, including payroll and costly equipment. NATO membership for Finland and Sweden has been embraced in the full knowledge that taxpayers will foot the bill. But if NATO membership is unacceptable for Ireland, why volunteer for the extra spending outside NATO?

There is no pressure from NATO to join, since the extra spending from Ireland would add nothing of significance to the alliance’s capability. The European NATO members, ignoring the enormous defence umbrella provided by the United States, will approach a total military budget of €400bn over the next few years.

The extra €5bn would buy no extra security for Ireland against the only identifiable external threat, nor would it add to any broader European ability to withstand aggression.

The options in best alignment to Ireland’s interests are to join NATO and spend the money or stay out and enjoy the saving. It is inconsistent to argue for neutrality combined with a much bigger military budget. Our western European neighbours, especially the UK and France, have every incentive in their own interests to deter Russia and the best option is to wish them success.