The Finnish government has officially announced its intention to join NATO, and Sweden’s ruling party followed shortly after in a twin development that paves the way for a possible joint application to the military alliance.
Less than three months after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the announcements on Sunday first by Finland and then Sweden were a stunning reversal of their traditional and long-standing policies of military non-alignment.
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“This is a historic day. A new era is opening,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told reporters at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Sanna Marin.
The Finnish parliament is expected to endorse the decision in the coming days. A formal membership application will then be submitted to NATO headquarters in Brussels, most likely at some point next week.
Hours later, Sweden also moved a step closer to applying for NATO membership after the governing Social Democratic Party backed joining the trans-Atlantic alliance.
The party said it was in favour of joining NATO, reversing its decades-long opposition amid soaring political and public support at home for joining the military alliance after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Sweden’s security needs are best served by NATO membership, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told a news conference.
“The best thing for the security of Sweden and the Swedish people is to join NATO,” Andersson said.
“We believe Sweden needs the formal security guarantees that come with membership in NATO,” she said.
The Social Democratic Party also said Sunday that if Sweden’s application were approved, it would work to express “unilateral reservations against the deployment of nuclear weapons and permanent bases on Swedish territory”.
Robert Dalsher, the Director of Studies at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, says Sweden’s decision to join NATO is historic as it breaks a long tradition of “neutrality and non-alignment”.
Speaking from Stockholm, Dalsher said that the expansion of NATO will “remove a source of uncertainty in the region” and facilitate the defence of both alliance members. “In the long-run increased stability and deterrence in this part of the world.”
He said that Russia talks tough but its hands are full in Ukraine, so it can hardly do anything really serious. Putin’s war in Ukraine has turned out to be “counterproductive”, Dalsher said, as NATO expansion is opposite of what Moscow wanted.
NATO membership needs to be approved and ratified by all 30 members of the alliance.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed last-minute objections to Sweden and Finland’s membership, but NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Sunday that Ankara was not opposed to the two countries’ bids.
“Turkey made it clear that its intention is not to block membership,” Stoltenberg told reporters virtually after a NATO alliance foreign ministers’ meeting in Berlin.
“I am confident we’ll be able to find common ground, consensus on how to move on membership issues,” Stoltenberg said, adding that he was in touch with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Cavusoglu meanwhile lauded Finland’s conciliatory approach in their talks, but criticised Sweden’s foreign minister for “provocative” statements.
Turkey’s objections, directed in particular at Stockholm, focus on what it considers to be both countries’ leniency towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on the European Union’s list of “terrorist” organisations.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken nonetheless insisted he was “very confident that we will reach consensus” on the two countries’ NATO bids.
Finland’s Niinisto said he was “prepared to have a new discussion with President Erdogan about the problems he has raised”.
Finland’s parliament will convene to debate the membership proposal on Monday.
“We hope the parliament will confirm the decision to apply for NATO membership during the coming days. It will be based on a strong mandate,” premier Marin said.
A vast majority of Finnish members of parliament backed the decision after Marin’s Social Democratic Party on Saturday said it was in favour of joining.
“Hopefully, we can send our applications next week together with Sweden,” Marin had said on Saturday.
The two Nordic countries broke their strict neutralities after the end of the Cold War by joining the EU and becoming partners to NATO in the 1990s, solidifying their affiliation with the West.
But the concept of full NATO membership was a non-starter in both countries until Russia invaded Ukraine.