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NATO: Finland forges ahead of Sweden toward membership

Teri Schultz
March 1, 2023

Finland’s parliament polishes the country’s NATO bid with a final stamp of approval, hoping for Hungary and Turkey to follow quickly. Would Finland going first leave Sweden insecure?

Belgien Brüssel | NATO Betrrittsantrag Schweden Finnland
Image: NATO

Finnish lawmakers have sealed the deal from their side, ratifying their own bid for NATO membership with a final vote of 184 to 7.  Their previous decision, on whether to support the government in launching the application process, racked up 188 votes for and 8 against after 14 hours of debate on May 17. 

Parliamentary vote count in favor of Finland seeking membership in NATO last May.
The Finnish parliament overwhelmingly backed the government proposal to seek membership in NATO last May.Image: Finnish parliament

Now all the Finns can do is wait for their counterparts in Hungary and Turkey, the two remaining NATO members who have not yet approved their accession — with or without their co-applicant, Sweden. Their neighbor on the other side, Russia, is the reason the country sought the NATO security assurances in the first place, and Mosow's brutality in Ukraine has only worsened during the wait. 

Turkey skews the timeline

Unanimous approval has turned out not to be a foregone conclusion, despite enormous optimism at the beginning of the process. Hungary is still lagging but the real problems started when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put the brakes on the two countries' bids, primarily due to their perceived tolerance for Kurdish groups he considers enemies. But it's really Sweden he's focused on.

Turkey holds key to NATO membership for Sweden, Finland

A deal between the three countries at the NATO summit in Madrid to work out their differences hasn't resolved things between Stockholm and Ankara. The officially-designated Kurdish terrorist organization, the PKK, has amped up its visibility in demonstrations where activists have targeted Erdogan personally. Separately, a far-right extremist burned a Koran, stoking Ankara's animosity toward the Swedish government.

"We do not have, relatively, a major problem with respect to Finland, but we are always underlining that Sweden should take concrete steps,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last month.

Stoltenberg approves a split application

Fearing both countries could be blocked if they insist in sticking together, NATO has changed its tack. "The main question is not whether Finland and Sweden are ratified together," Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg now says. "The main question is that they are both ratified as full members as soon as possible.”

Just how soon is "possible" is causing some irritation. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, speaking to the press alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a parliamentary debate, said she would have hoped Finland and Sweden were already members by now as they had fulfilled all the criteria.

"Of course, this strains the open door policy of NATO as well," she said. "It has to do with NATO's credibility."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg downplays the importance of Finland and Sweden joining at the same time. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin still says it is a priority.Image: Heikki Saukkomaa/picture alliance/dpa/Lehtikuva

It's also straining relations between the two neighbors. When Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto first suggested in late January that Finland may have to proceed into NATO without Sweden, his Swedish counterpart immediately demanded clarification. Haavisto was forced to hold a press conference to publicly restate that the preferred path of membership for Helsinki was, naturally, together with Stockholm.

Helsinki's "hands are tied"

But just last month at the Munich Security Conference, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto was blunt about the fact that Finland would go it alone if the opportunity arose. "Our hands are in a way tied," he said. "We have applied for membership. Should we now say we cancel our application? That we can't do.”

Henri Vanhanen, a research analyst with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, says it's really not an option to wait. "It would be very hard for decision makers to justify to the people who are over 80% in favor of NATO right now," he told DW. "Also we're seeing over 50% of Finns now in favor of going in NATO at this point, even if Sweden is not ratified.”

Finnland | Treffen Sauli Niinisto mit schwedischem Premierminister Ulf Kristersson
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson would prefer Finland to wait and join with Sweden but no one knows how long that might take. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto says he will move ahead once Turkey and Hungary ratify Finnish membership.Image: Matti Porre/Office of the President of the Republic of Finland

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has warned that leaving his country outside NATO alone could create a security problem for both Sweden and for the alliance. But Henri Vanhanen doesn't see it that way.

"Sweden would be a NATO invitee surrounded by NATO members and would have Finland on its eastern neighbor in NATO," he said. "I wouldn't say it would be the worst possible scenario." At the moment it's the most likely scenario.

Helsinki now faces time pressure on a number of issues. Aside from waiting on the holdout allies, Niinisto has three months from the date of this parliamentary approval to sign the accession protocol himself and have it deposited in Washington, D.C.  

He has said he wants the process finished by April, when Finland holds parliamentary elections, so that the Finnish flag can be raised at NATO headquarters while those who made it happen are still in office.

Edited by: Ruairi Casey