Accession to NATO has been discussed in Finland since 1995. Now the country could apply for membership as early as May. Finland is well prepared – and both sides would benefit, says Minna Ålander.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has changed Finland’s security policy calculations. After the end of the Cold War, two principles were essential for Finnish foreign and security policy: maintaining good relations with Russia on the one hand, and a strong national defence capability on the other hand. The country wanted to be prepared for all eventualities with regard to its eastern neighbour. Already since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Finland has increasingly strengthened various formats of defence cooperation: bilaterally in ever closer cooperation with Sweden and the US, trilaterally with Norway and Sweden, and by further developing the Nordic defence cooperation. Finland and Sweden are already NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partners. Both countries have a high level of interoperability with NATO structures, which would enable almost immediate operational readiness upon accession.
Historic U-turn in the NATO question
Ever since Finland’s EU accession in 1995, the possibility of NATO membership has also been discussed. Until February 2022 popular support had stagnated at around 20 per cent. Only two parties in the Finnish parliament supported membership: the National Coalition Party and the Swedish People’s Party (the party of the Swedish-speaking minority). Thus, the “NATO option”, a peculiar feature of Finnish foreign and security policy, remained the official line: The country saw no need for full membership but wanted to keep open the option of joining if the security situation changed. Since February, another four parties, including the governing Green Party, have announced their consent to joining NATO. The latest polls have also registered more than 60 per cent approval rates for NATO membership among the population.
On 20 April, the parliamentary debate began on the government report regarding the changed security situation – also called the “NATO Report” – published on 13 April. The Centre Party and the Social Democratic Party – both currently in the governing coalition – still have no official party line. However, their representatives have spoken out in very clear terms in favour of joining NATO. Even the Left Alliance, which has been the most reluctant to support membership, is not uniformly opposed. With the MPs alone who have already signalled their approval, Finland’s accession to the Alliance would have a parliamentary majority. The next step is consultation in the relevant committees.
Because no referendum will be held due to the dynamic situation, the highest possible level of parliamentary consensus is important – but not decisive. Ultimately, the president, together with the government, can initiate the accession process regardless of the status of the parliamentary process. Prime Minister Sanna Marin said at the beginning of the debate that now is the time for decisions. A recommendation from the government to the president to initiate the accession process can thus be expected as early as May.
Why Finland wants to join NATO now
The most important reason for Finland’s desire to go for the “NATO option” now is obvious: Russia as a neighbour can no longer be trusted. This eliminates a central argument that has so far kept Finland from joining: maintaining good relations with Russia. Another aspect that made NATO membership unpopular in Finland was the participation of NATO countries in controversial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. However, in view of the threat posed by Russia to the European security order, NATO is returning to its original function as a defence alliance, which is in Finland’s interest. Finland is also aware that it can obtain the security guarantee of NATO collective defence provided by Article 5 only as a full-fledged member. From Finland’s point of view, it makes sense to upgrade the already existing close partnership to full membership and to have a seat at the table where decisions concerning its national security are taken. Moreover, joining NATO is seen as the completion of Finland’s integration with the West.
Finland’s role in NATO
Although Finland is a country of only 5.5 million inhabitants, its armed forces are above average in European comparison. In the event of war, Finland can reach a troop strength of 280,000 and a total reserve strength of up to 870,000. This is because Finland, unlike many EU and NATO countries, never abolished conscription. Moreover, the Finnish armed forces are equipped with modern equipment: A recent example is the government decision of December 2021 to purchase 64 US F-35 fighter jets, which are also to be introduced in Germany. Furthermore, Finnish national defence is based on the “Comprehensive Security” concept, a cooperative security model that covers the civilian population and the economy as well. Finland was already close to meeting NATO’s 2 per cent defence spending target before Russia’s war of aggression and has since announced further substantial increases to its defence budget.
Finland is thus well prepared to defend its 1,343 km border with Russia and to repel any Russian attacks – most likely of a hybrid nature – that are expected to follow its NATO membership application. As a NATO member, Finland would significantly strengthen the regional defence of NATO’s northern flank and play a central role in the defence of the entire Baltic Sea region, including the Baltic States. Ideally, Finland and Sweden would apply for membership together. However, the national decisions will be taken independently of each other. Both sides would profit from Finland and Sweden joining the Alliance: The new members get the additional insurance of NATO’s security guarantee, and NATO gains considerable additional capacity in the Alliance’s northern dimension.