Sweden and Finland Take a Step Closer to Joining NATO
Sweden and Finland both took a major step toward joining NATO this week. Finland will make its decision on whether to apply for membership in “weeks rather than months,” Prime Minister Sanna Marin said yesterday in a joint press conference in Stockholm alongside her Swedish counterpart, Magdalena Andersson. Sweden will reportedly wait until after Finland makes a final decision, but Swedish media are reporting that Andersson’s Social Democrats are already sold on the idea and have decided to push for Sweden’s NATO membership.
The bombshell announcement makes for yet another groundbreaking development in European security policy since Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized the invasion of Ukraine in February. Finland has historically steered clear of NATO membership since the end of World War II, and Helsinki formalized its neutrality in conflicts between great powers in a 1948 treaty with Moscow as a way to stave off a potential attempt at annexation by the Soviet Union. Despite the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, successive Finnish governments have deemed that agreement to still be in force, and a 2019 poll found that a slight majority of Finns opposed NATO membership for their country.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears to have triggered a shift in public opinion, with almost 70 percent of Finns now favoring membership in the trans-Atlantic alliance. Sweden’s neutrality is older, dating back to a decision taken following its disastrous defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, when it lost Finland—which had been a part of the Swedish Empire for centuries—to Russia. In Sweden, too, a majority now favors ending this 210-year-old neutrality policy.
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While their apparent shifts in position is ostensibly a big deal, the question of whether NATO membership would significantly change Stockholm’s and Helsinki’s security posture is worth considering. It certainly would be hugely symbolic. But as European Union members, Sweden and Finland already benefit from Article 42.7 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, the bloc’s mutual defense clause.
They also benefit, if indirectly, from the NATO security umbrella, as do other neutral EU member states like Austria and Ireland, as it is inconceivable that France and the United Kingdom would just stand by and watch if any EU member state were attacked or invaded, regardless of whether they are NATO members. And depending on who was president at the time, the U.S. would likely also be drawn into such a conflict.
NATO’s Article 5—the mutual defense clause regarded as the cornerstone of the 30-member alliance—is arguably just a piece of paper. And former U.S. President Donald Trump cast doubt on how valuable a piece of paper it actually is, by repeatedly sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of Washington’s NATO allies about whether the U.S. would honor it. But as events from recent weeks have demonstrated, the harsh realities of geopolitics and conflict invest that piece of paper with immense importance.
That evidently matters to Helsinki, which now argues that indirect guarantees or even NATO partnership agreements do not by themselves constitute a security umbrella. “Being a member of NATO you have the security of Article 5 ... that is not something you have in other arrangements,” said Andersson.
“The difference between being a partner and being a member is very clear, and will remain so,” agreed Marin. “There’s no other way to have security guarantees.”
Whether that’s strictly true is debatable—the EU could offer a more unequivocal security guarantee than Article 42.7, which would be less provocative to Russia because it wouldn’t involve the United States, at least on paper. But it remains the case that Washington’s European allies trust the U.S. with their security much more than they trust their fellow Europeans.
Helsinki issued a report yesterday to serve as the framework for its position on the NATO membership debate. The white paper noted that Finland is already “interoperable with NATO,” essentially making an argument for fast-tracking Finland’s application to join the alliance, an argument underscored last week by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. But that also suggests that, other than the security guarantee, NATO membership would likely not bring immediate changes to Finland’s security posture, especially since the report stresses that membership “would not oblige Finland to accept [U.S.] nuclear weapons, permanent bases or troops in its territory.”
Some commentators have called for Sweden and Finland to be given preemptive Article 5 protection while they go through the NATO application process, which could be completed by the end of the year. But given the geopolitical reality that Finland and Sweden are already under the West’s security umbrella, that’s probably unnecessary.
One point that is beyond dispute is that NATO membership for Finland and Sweden is almost certain to enrage Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has warned of “serious military-political consequences” and “retaliation” should they join the alliance. And given his previous statements pointing to NATO enlargement as a justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an expansion in the alliance’s membership just might create a new security dilemma in Europe.
In Other News
After the EU’s ban of Russian coal, Moscow’s oil could be next. Last week, the EU banned Russian coal imports, starting in August. Sixty percent of the EU’s thermal coal imports come from Russia, so at first glance the decision might seem like a major step in starving Moscow of considerable income. But that 60 percent is actually a large share of a small amount, with only about 10 percent of EU power generation coming from coal, and Russian imports worth only about 4 billion euros per year. That represents a small fraction of the 1 billion euros the bloc sends daily to Russia in payments for oil and gas imports.
The far bigger threat to Moscow would be a ban on Russian oil. That is a topic of discussion among EU leaders, and a possible decision may be reached as early as next week. An oil embargo is a much more attractive proposition for the EU than a gas embargo for several reasons. First, it would impose a greater financial cost on Russia. Second, the EU is proportionally less dependent on imports of Russian oil, which make up about 25 percent of its oil imports, compared to gas imports, nearly half of which come from Russia. And third, it’s easier to replace oil with alternative sources that can be transported without needing to be liquefied like gas.
Boris Johnson fined for breaking the law he passed. It’s now official: Boris Johnson has become the first British prime minister in history to have been found guilty of breaking the law. He, along with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, has been issued a fine for holding parties at No. 10 Downing Street during periods of government-mandated lockdown, in violation of rules set by Johnson’s own government. More fines may be coming Johnson’s way.
Calls for his resignation have come from near and far, but Johnson is using the war in Ukraine as the reason he cannot step down at this time. Tory lawmakers who previously said they would call for Johnson’s resignation if the police found that he broke the law are now demurring, making all kinds of excuses as to why this isn’t a resignation-worthy offense. Even if Johnson hangs on to power, the government will have lost moral authority at a critical time. But the Conservatives will not replace him, because there is no obvious successor, and they are wary of the power vacuum that would emerge if Johnson is forced out.
It's déjà vu all over again in France. As expected, the first round of the French presidential election concluded Sunday with President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen advancing to the runoff round, which will be held April 24. Though polls taken in the final week before the first-round voting suggested a possible tie between Macron and Le Pen, he eventually finished about five points ahead of the far-right leader, compared to a three-point spread between them in the first round of the 2017 contest. Macron’s vote share in the 2022 race was the highest in the first round by a sitting French president since Francois Mitterrand in 1988.
Though many people here in Brussels were gripped by anxiety ahead of the French election five years ago, this time around they seem to be paying less attention, even though polls show Le Pen’s odds of winning the presidency are much higher than they were in 2017. Nonetheless, some observers who are nervously watching the race are already talking about how a President Le Pen could be bypassed in dealing with Paris, given how unlikely it would be for her to win a majority in June’s parliamentary elections.
Dave Keating is an American-European journalist who has been based in Brussels for 12 years. Originally from the New York City area, Dave has in the past covered the halls of the U.S. Congress in Washington, courtrooms of Chicago, boardrooms of London, cafe of Paris and the climate campaigns of Berlin.