Finland and Sweden submit applications to join NATO

18 May 2022

Finland and Sweden today simultaneously handed in their official letters of application to join NATO, in a move driven by security concerns over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“I warmly welcome the requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO. You are our closest partners”, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters after receiving the application letters from the two Nordic countries’ ambassadors.

“This is a good day, at a critical moment for our security” Stoltenberg said, adding “You have both made your choice, after thorough democratic processes”. While it is clear that public opinion in Finland and Sweden has shifted hugely in favour of membership since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, neither country is submitting the decision to a referendum (in contrast to their EU membership applications in 1994). Moreover, some of the weightier and longer-term considerations have not been discussed or are being drowned out by the relentless elite drumbeat towards NATO membership. Despite it being one of the most significant changes in Europe’s security architecture in decades—Sweden, for example, would be abandoning a nearly 200-year-old policy of armed neutrality—the whole process appears hurried.

The decision-making in Finland

The Finnish parliament received a citizen’s initiative for a national referendum on NATO membership on 8 March 2022, and the issue was referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee on 22 April 2022. However, the Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said that a national referendum on NATO would not be necessary. On 16 May Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin presented to the parliament the Finnish government report on the accession to NATO, arguing in favour of NATO membership. During the parliamentary debate the same day, representatives from all political parties delivered oral statements, with most members referencing Russian aggression and the security situation in Europe and the Nordics as a reason for joining. In total, 212 statements were made in parliament during the debate, which lasted past midnight. The next day, on 17 May, the members voted 188–8 to join NATO. Parliamentary unity on the issue was reached through party groups uniting ahead of the vote. For example, the governing Social Democrats, who previously opposed NATO membership, held an extraordinary council meeting on 14 May 2022, where it decided to support NATO membership.

The decision-making in Sweden

On 16 May the Swedish Government informed the Swedish king that it intended to apply for membership in NATO during a meeting of the Advisory Council. In addition, the parliament held a special debate on security policy deliberations and the NATO application on the same day. The parliamentary debate, which was attended by one representative of each political party, discussed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ report, Deterioration of the security environment – implications for Sweden. During the debate, the Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson reiterated her commitment to increasing the country’s defence spending to 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a requirement to join NATO. In addition, she referred to the importance of Finland now joining NATO as well, highlighting the risks that Sweden would face being the only Nordic country to remain outside of NATO. During the debate, most of the Swedish parties expressed support for joining NATO, with only two parties opposed— the Left Party and the Greens. The leader of the Left Party argued that it was a betrayal of the voters to apply for NATO membership before the national election to parliament in September, and she had previously argued in favour of a national referendum on membership. Similarly, the leader of the Greens argued that the decision was rushed and should have been postponed until after the parliamentary elections. In total, seven out of nine parties, representing 316 out of 349 members of the parliament, support NATO membership.

Announcing the decision during a joint press conference held by the two largest parties, the ruling Social Democrats party and the largest opposition party, the Moderates (together representing 170 of 349 votes in the Swedish parliament), Magdalena Andersson explained that joining NATO is in Sweden’s national security interests—thereby changing the ruling Social Democrats’ longstanding foreign policy of not joining NATO, which it reaffirmed as recently as 16 February 2022.

NATO Foreign Ministers met in Berlin on 15 May 2022 to discuss the expected applications as well as to reaffirm NATO’s support for Ukraine. The applications must now be approved by the 30 NATO member states. Several NATO allies, most notably the United Kingdom, have offered security assurances to Finland and Sweden during the application period before they are covered by the alliance’s mutual defence pact. When North Macedonia joined NATO in March 2020 the process took over 12 months, but for Sweden and Finland it is expected to be expedited and might only take a few months. However, that will depend on overcoming the reservations expressed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey’s reservations

Ankara blames Sweden and, to a lesser extent, Finland for backing groups considered ‘terrorists’ by the Turkish Government—the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the leftist extremist group DHKP-C and followers of the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara claims was behind a failed military coup attempt in 2016. According to Turkey’s state-run media, Sweden and Finland have refused to extradite 33 people wanted by Turkey. Turkey, which frequently accuses NATO allies of ignoring its security concerns, has also been concerned by restrictions on sales of military equipment to its armed forces. These were imposed by EU countries, including Sweden and Finland, following Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria in 2019.

Turkey will be expecting a quid pro quo for its support. This might include a commitment by the two countries to clamp down on Kurdish political activism inside their countries or, more likely, to gain concessions from the United States and other allies. Turkey wants to be readmitted to the US-led F-35 combat aircraft programme — a project it was expelled from after purchasing Russian S-400 missile defence systems. Alternatively, Turkey is looking to purchase more F-16 combat aircraft and upgrade its existing fleet.

Russia’s response

So far, Russia’s response has been surprisingly low key, having previously warned of steps of a “military-technical” nature and that it could deploy nuclear weapons in its European exclave of Kaliningrad were the countries to join. President Vladimir Putin said on 16 May that Swedish and Finnish NATO membership posed no threat to Russia, but cautioned that Moscow would respond if the Western alliance boosted military infrastructure in the new Nordic members.


Further reading:

Thomas Meaney, Finland and Sweden may join Nato – but even they can’t guarantee that will make them safer, The Guardian, 18 May 2022

Amb. Eric Edelman, The Strongman Cometh, The Dispatch, 18 May 2022

Remarks by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with Klaus Korhonen (ambassador of Finland accredited to NATO) and Axel Wernhoff (ambassador of Sweden accredited to NATO), 18 May 2022

Finland and Sweden submit applications to join NATO, NATO News, 18 May 2022

Suzan Fraser. Explainer: Why is Turkey wary of Nordic states’ NATO bid? Associated Press, 17 May 2022

Turkey threatens to block Finland and Sweden Nato bids, BBC News, 17 May 2022

Asli Aydıntaşbaş, Turkey, NATO, and the Ukraine war: Why Erdogan’s grievances are about more than Sweden and Finland, ECFR Commentary, 16 May 2022

David Salvo, What to Expect from Russia Should Finland and Sweden Join NATO, Securing Democracy, 16 May 2022

Turkey objects as Sweden, Finland seek NATO membership, Associated Press, 16 May 2022

NATO Foreign Ministers discuss Sweden, Finland membership application, reaffirm Ukraine support, NATO News, 15 May 2022

Anatol Lieven, Finland and Sweden will join NATO at the expense of everything, Responsible Statecraft, 13 May 2022 

Finland and Sweden edge closer to NATO, but Turkey hints at opposition, NATO Watch News Brief, 13 May 2022

Should Finland and Sweden hold a referendum on NATO membership? NATO Watch Briefing no. 93, 6 May 2022