Since the end of February, they have always joined NATO’s urgent consultations on Ukraine. They are partners with whom NATO has been cooperating very closely operationally for many years. And in Brussels, no one can well imagine that if Russia invades Sweden or Finland, the rest of Europe will shrug its shoulders, even though the two countries are not formally covered by the alliance’s security guarantee.
However, the prime ministers of Sweden and Finland announced on Wednesday that they want to make a decision on formal NATO membership in the short term. The threat posed by Russia is too great. There was Europe before February 24 and there is Europe after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Prime Ministers Magdalena Andersson and Sanne Marin said. Formal protection under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty – an attack on one is an attack on all – is more attractive after ’24/2 ‘than a looser connection.
A joke has been going on in Brussels for years that if Helsinki calls on Tuesday with an application for membership, it will be agreed on Friday
Political talks on accession began in Helsinki and Stockholm when Russian President Putin said on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine that the two should not become members of NATO. We will decide on the right to membership ourselves, was the angry reaction. Putin’s meddling in sovereignty has sparked a renewed political debate on membership. The war further fueled the debate.
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The Finnish parliament will debate membership next week, with the majority of the population saying it is in favor of membership in the polls.
Finland would rather join Sweden. Swedish Prime Minister Andersson is even more cautious: “We need to think carefully about what is best for Sweden and our security.”
‘Her’ Swedish Social Democrats have traditionally been fierce opponents of membership. Immediately after the invasion, the Social Democrats wondered if membership would actually lead to greater danger. But now they see that not only has the geopolitical situation changed, but the political mood has also changed.
The debate within NATO seems to be a formality. In Brussels, there has been a joke for years that if Helsinki calls on Tuesday with an application for membership, it is agreed on Friday. If all goes according to plan, the two will formally apply for membership at the NATO summit in Madrid in June. The question is whether Sweden can keep up with that pace.
Neutrality as the crown jewel
It is a historic moment for two countries that – for various reasons – have been arguing over membership for years, but in the end preferred to keep their distance. Sweden has been neutral for so long that neutrality is perceived as the crown jewel. The country has not been at war for two centuries. For Finland, non-membership was a conscious choice to survive in the shadow of the Soviet Union. Member States have been members of the EU since the mid-1990s and have not been truly neutral since, but are formally considered ‘non-aligned’.
It is also a good time for Russian President Putin’s opponents. He sought assurances that NATO would withdraw its troops from Eastern Europe. Instead, NATO is now doing the opposite and heading east.
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But the moment is not entirely risk-free. NATO – which will soon consist of 32 countries – will have hundreds of kilometers of direct borders with Russia. The Baltic Sea, which is strategically important for Russia, will soon become a kind of NATO land sea.
Membership in Moscow can easily be interpreted as a ‘provocation’. That is why it is also important that the transition phase between publication and actual membership is properly regulated.
A version of this article also appeared in the NRC on the morning of April 14, 2022