Why the case for Finland’s NATO membership is stronger than ever – European Council on Foreign Relations

Writing for the ECFR on January 10, I outlined three reasons why Finland might eventually join NATO. But I also argued that none were yet strong enough to elicit a candidacy. Several months later, the strength of these reasons is no longer in doubt – and there are now at least two more that could compel Finland down this path.

The impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Concerns about Russia have always been the main reason why Finland joined NATO. Until recently, however, Russia was also the main reason for not joining. For Helsinki, any immediate or short-term negative Russian reaction to NATO membership would have been manageable. But the long-term implications of a complete transformation of security policy from non-aligned to ally status represented uncharted territory for the country’s bilateral relationship with Russia. And Finnish lawmakers have long been reluctant to take this step. Given Russia’s utter disregard for the rules of international relations and international law, Helsinki has now lost any semblance of trust in Moscow. Finland must protect itself – and its leaders conclude that the best way to do this is through a military alliance.

The second effective prerequisite for Finland to join NATO was that public opinion change decisively in its favour. After the Russian invasion on February 24, it happened remarkably quickly. At the end of March, opinion polls showed that 61 percent of Finns are in favor of joining NATO, against 28 percent in January (which was already a record). In response, one political party after another reformulated its position on security and defense policy.

And, earlier this year, the third variable that might have prompted Finland to join was whether Sweden should also apply. Unlike when the two countries joined the European Union in the early 1990s, Sweden has not yet taken the first step. And, so recent media reports turn out to be correct, maybe even Finland will do it this time. But it is important that Finland also integrates Sweden, and preferably at the same time, so that Helsinki does not only face Russian countermeasures.

Clearly, this change in Finland’s position was both rapid and profound. NATO is the best option in an unprecedented threatening situation. Economic relations with Russia have changed from a business opportunity for Helsinki to a burden. And any old political goal of seeking common interests and areas of cooperation with Russia now appears as nonsense. In addition, a country’s international image matters. So much so, in fact, that in a television interview on March 26, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö emphasized not only the potential of NATO membership to deter Russia, but also its likely positive impact on international perceptions of Finland.

new patterns

A new element in the NATO debate in Finland is that the country’s leaders are now prepared to act directly against Russia’s demand that its smaller neighbor stay out of the alliance. There is renewed attention to the fact that, if Finland does not join NATO now, it will have less “freedom of movement” in the future – the long-cherished basis of Finnish security and defense policy . Thus, Finland’s room for maneuver would now be better protected within the alliance rather than outside, which was the previous consensus. A new Finnish government report on the evolution of the security environment makes explicit this new appreciation of the country’s interests:

a situation where Russia aims to build a sphere of influence through military demands and means, failure to react to changes in the security environment could lead to changes in Finland’s international position and a narrowing of the margin of Finnish maneuver.

Two additional aspects have emerged that could prompt Finnish leaders to act. First, as a member of NATO, Finland could influence the alliance from within. The intergovernmental nature of NATO would suit Helsinki well in this regard: since decisions are based on consensus, Finland would not face internal criticism for having to agree to terms of participation in NATO activities that ‘she wasn’t necessarily supporting.

There is renewed attention to the fact that, if Finland does not join NATO now, it will have less “freedom of movement” in the future – the long-cherished basis of Finnish security and defense policy .

Secondly, joining NATO would have positive consequences for Nordic cooperation, which enjoys remarkable popularity in the public opinion of the Nordic countries. Any boost to “Norden” – a term used in the five Nordic states to describe them – should therefore be welcome for policymakers and the public. Moreover, Norden would bring this long tradition of cooperation (notably between Sweden and Finland) to NATO.

Indeed, NATO membership of the five Nordic countries would represent an important new grouping, contributing to a new form of regionalism within the alliance. Swedish journalist PM Nilsson’s editorial in Dagens Industry April 24 even goes so far as to baptize this “NordNATO” – an important strategic entity in which Sweden would play a central role. And editor of the Finnish newspaper Helsingin SanomatKarius Niemi, a writing on the potential of a Nordic stronghold in the alliance.

NATO will no doubt have noted that new kinds of sub-regionalism could be both useful and problematic as the alliance evolves. For Finns and Swedes, however, it is a welcome and reassuring new perspective on what NATO membership might look like. If both countries submit applications this month, their exit from non-alignment will be significant and irreversible. However, it also has the potential to strengthen Norden and protect the future integrity of the region.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of their individual authors only.