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16 May 2022

Sweden’s Nato application marks historic shift away from neutrality

The development is another example of Vladimir Putin’s accidental strengthening of Nato.

By Ido Vock

Sweden is to end more than two centuries of formal military non-alignment and apply for membership of the Nato alliance. The ruling Social Democrats, the centre-left party that has dominated Swedish politics for most of the past century, have dropped their historical opposition to the military alliance amid a shift in public opinion catalysed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, another non-Nato member.

Some elements of Sweden’s longstanding pacifism remain, though: Stockholm has indicated that it will oppose stationing nuclear weapons and foreign military bases on its soil.

“It is clear that our freedom from alliances has served Sweden well, but our conclusion is that it wouldn’t serve us as well in the future,” Magdalena Andersson, the prime minister, told a press conference on 15 May. Sweden has long pursued a non-aligned foreign policy; in the 1970s and 1980s, the then-prime minister Olof Palme was a leading advocate of such a position, campaigning against aspects of both American and Soviet foreign policy. Stockholm has, however, inched closer to Nato since the end of the Cold War.

Sweden’s neighbour Finland, another formerly neutral Nordic country, also confirmed its decision to apply last week. The foreign ministers of the countries, both governed by social democrat parties, participated in an informal Nato summit in Berlin over the weekend.

Both bids will need to be approved by the alliance’s 30 members, most of whom have indicated support for the move. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president, has said that he does not take a “positive view” of Sweden and Finland’s applications because of both countries’ supposed support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the EU and US class as a terrorist organisation. Nato officials, though, have said that Turkey’s objections can be addressed and should not prevent the accession of the two newest candidate states.

Sweden and Finland’s membership of Nato will make the defence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania easier as the entirety of the Baltic Sea region, aside from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, becomes a Nato area. As Miapetra Kumpula-Natri, a Finnish MEP for the Social Democrats, told me last week: “We can help defend the whole of the Baltic Sea, which covers Norway, Denmark, Germany and Poland as well as the three Baltic states. So actually the missing pieces of the puzzle are only Sweden and Finland.”

The applications for Nato membership will need to go through parliament in both countries, but are expected to pass easily, even if they may face some marginal opposition from the left-most flanks of the ruling parties and smaller left-wing parties. A broad political consensus has emerged over the past weeks, helped by the fact that centre-right opposition parties – historically more favourable to Nato membership – have largely chosen to avoid politicking over the issue in the national interest.

Before the war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin expressed a desire to recraft Europe’s security architecture. Months into the invasion, a new security map of Europe is indeed emerging – but not in quite the way he wanted.

[See also: Why is Finland joining Nato?]

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