The Finnish president’s traditional new year’s speech normally goes unnoticed outside his own country. But this year, Sauli Niinistö’s remarks led the Financial Times to run a story headlined “Finland insists on its right to join NATO in defiance of Russia”. The issue attracted increased interest in Finland too, with newspaper Helsingin Sanomat taking the time to explain the joining process for its readers. But is Finnish NATO membership really on the cards? Niinistö shortly afterwards wrote that he had said nothing different from a previous statement in December, and that he would clearly signal any change in position. Indeed, the president restated the well-pondered – and ponderous – words that “Finland’s room to manoeuvre and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership, should we ourselves so decide”.
The prime minister, Sanna Marin, also maintains this stance. And it is true that Vladimir Putin’s December warnings about NATO enlargement have not – much – altered the substance of Finnish messaging on this issue.
But the warnings have drawn a response, and the political leaders’ words hint at ways in which the situation could change. Niinistö’s 1 January speech warned that Russia’s recent ultimatums to the United States and NATO conflict with the European security order. The prime minister has referenced the OSCE principles, and the president pointed to “the sovereign equality of all states as a basic principle that everyone should respect” – a line that will sound familiar to Russian government spokespersons. In today’s fast-moving world, even normally slow-moving processes might suddenly speed forward. In Finland’s case, what decisive factors could change the country’s balance of considerations and move it towards NATO membership?
A first obvious answer is Russia. The country is the main reason for Finland to join NATO – while at the same time being the main reason for it not to join. Finland’s only security concerns come from Russia, yet only Russia would react negatively to a Finnish application for NATO membership.
This question has been building for some time. The Finnish foreign ministry commissioned a report published in 2016 called “The effects of Finland’s possible NATO membership,” written by senior Finnish, Swedish, and French experts. While it predicts an initial sharp Russian reaction to Finland joining, it also foresees tacit acquiescence and eventual acceptance once enlargement has taken place. So while membership is not out of the question, the report was clear that such a major change should be only a long-term move, not a short-term response.
A second answer to the question of what would propel Finland towards NATO would be a clear shift in public opinion – and how politicians manage this. Domestic opinion has shown a slight increase in favour of NATO and decrease in support for military non-alignment. Polls have found only 24-26 per cent in favour of membership and 51 per cent against. How this expresses itself through the formal processes remains unclear: previously, a referendum might have been the preferred means through which to decide on such a momentous change. But the dangers that plebiscites bring, including the potential to give outside powers the chance to interfere, are now frequently cited as a reason against organising one – something that is not totally unproblematic from the perspective of democracy. Perhaps support could be measured through parliamentary election results. One party, the centre-right National Coalition, has advocated membership since 2006, and some representatives of the Green party have spoken more positively about membership. But other major parties are considerably less in favour.
For the time being, with no political party really leading the debate, or sign of public opinion moving dramatically on its own, domestic dynamics are unlikely to drive Finland towards NATO.
Yet, another external player could prove decisive. If Sweden were to apply for NATO membership, Finland would quickly follow. But what will Sweden do? Even though Stockholm keeps close to Finnish policies more than in the past, it would still not necessarily follow it were Helsinki to move first. It would be easier for Sweden to be surrounded by NATO countries than it would for Finland to find itself between NATO-member Sweden and Russia. If it were ever to decide to join, Sweden may need other reasons, of a more moral and principled kind – and Niinistö’s new year’s speech perhaps hinted at this too, with what looks like a deliberate reference to the country when he remarked that “the sovereignty of several Member States, also Sweden and Finland, has being challenged from outside the Union.”
Niinistö’s insistence on sovereignty seems to have resonated, as the Swedish prime minister has already spoken with him about the issue. The deep security and defence cooperation that has long existed between the two countries should mean that they would consult each other before making such a major decision public. And, moving together, they could formulate favourable membership conditions.
So, while headlines implying potential Finnish membership of NATO may be wrong, the subtext of the story suggests the situation is not quite so static either.
Hanna Ojanen is an ECFR Council Member and Research Director at the University of Tampere, Finland
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.