In Sweden and Finland even the skeptics come to NATO offers – POLITICO

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STOCKHOLM – The prospects of Sweden and Finland joining NATO will ultimately depend on how many people think the same way as Peter Gustavsson.

A longtime Social Democrat MP in Uppsala, Sweden, who now publishes a party Newsletter In Stockholm, Gustavsson says Moscow’s decision to attack Ukraine has upset the security image vis-à-vis Russia’s neighbors and that it is now time for Sweden to join the defense alliance.

“This is a whole new chapter,” said Gustavsson. “We need to rethink our positioning.”

Intrepid social democrats like Gustavsson – who began his political career in the party’s youth wing – are in the spotlight because they may hold the key to what happens next with NATO membership in Sweden and Finland.

While centre-right opposition parties in both countries balked at joining the alliance – and its central concept of mutual defense – a few years ago, the Social Democrats in both countries remained skeptical and blocked any move towards membership.

If the likes of Gustavsson en masse support a U-turn in NATO, it could give the social-democratic prime ministers of Sweden and Finland a mandate for a one-off security policy overhaul – if they choose to do so.

At the same time, the public mood has changed.

In Sweden, the population as a whole has support for joining NATO risen from about 35 percent to 46 percent in the past month. In Finland it is peppered up to over 60 Percent.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin called on Saturday that talks about their country’s possible NATO membership should be concluded “this spring”.

Meanwhile, Swedish leader Magdalena Andersson said a discussion on security policy, including the option of joining NATO, would be completed by the end of May.

“I’m not ruling out NATO membership,” Andersson said told national broadcaster SVT last week. “But I want us to conduct a comprehensive analysis of our options and the threats and risks they entail in order to make the best decision for Sweden.”

Dangerous Neighborhood

Sweden and Finland both face Russia across the Baltic Sea, while Finland has the added problem of a 1,300-kilometer land border with its huge eastern neighbor.

While the other six Western European countries bordering the Baltic Sea have sought security in NATO for the last few decades, lawmakers in Helsinki and Stockholm have long favored neutrality.

While this neutrality officially ended with EU membership in 1995, for many Swedes and Finns, especially on the political left, the step into NATO was still an unnecessary provocation from Moscow.

But Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine, which has itself tried to move closer to the West without NATO protection, has sparked a new conversation within Swedish and Finnish social democrats.

“There is a serious discussion going on, and that’s a good thing,” Andersson told reporters outside Parliament last week.

A Socialist MEP leaving the room – Patrik Björck – said that the discussion within the party is now “much broader” than it was recently.

So far, no Social Democrat lawmaker has been ready to impeach NATO, but observers say there has been a softening of tone towards the alliance in recent statements by party heavyweights such as Defense Secretary Peter Hultqvist and Foreign Secretary Ann Linde.

The fact that Andersson now says her country’s two-century-long rejection of military alliances has “served Sweden well” rather than the traditional “served Sweden well” was thorough parsed.

In Finland, too, the Social Democrats are reluctant to make public statements.

In a poll by Finnish national broadcaster YLE, published this week, all but one of the Social Democrat MPs declined to answer a question about NATO membership. The one who answered, Suna Kymäläinen, was for and called it had supported NATO membership since Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. However, she said it was important “not to make hasty decisions” and that talks are ongoing.

Observers suggest that the review of Sweden’s security policy could be crucial for both countries, as Finland’s geographic position between Sweden and Russia could make it difficult to join NATO on its own.

Alternatively, if Finland acted first and announced a decision to join NATO, that could force Sweden to act.

The leaders of both countries have said that they will act in their own interest but that they would like to agree on a common way forward.

“I think it’s important to try to get the same opinion,” said Finnish President Sauli Niinistö called in this week. “It is very important that we have continuous discussions with the Swedish government and the Swedish legislature.”

Division of the Nordic defenses

The Nordic countries have been divided on defense policy since shortly after the end of World War II.

Denmark and Norway, occupied by Germany during the war, joined NATO when it was formed in 1949. Iceland also joined.

Sweden wanted to create a new Nordic defense alliance after the war, but when that idea fell through, Stockholm decided to extend its longstanding neutrality, which had helped it avoid conflict since the Napoleonic era.

Finland, which had just fought two brutal wars with the Soviets, also decided to pursue a neutral line in the postwar period, fearing that rapprochement with the West might spark further hostilities with Moscow.

In the decades that followed, Sweden and Finland attempted to assume their roles as international peacekeepers, calling for nuclear disarmament and staging talks between warring factions in a series of international conflicts.

In recent years, politics in the two countries has split over NATO, with the centre-right Moderate Party in Sweden and its sister National Coalition Party in Finland mounting pushes for accession, while the Social Democrats have dug in against it.

But over the past month, that Social Democrat resistance appeared to be weakening, as Russia’s assault on Ukraine appears to have shocked both party leaders and the grassroots to a reassessment.

Finland’s Marin began by analyzing her country’s military posture, followed shortly thereafter by Andersson of Sweden.

Gustavsson, the editor of the Social Democrats’ newsletter, said that while resistance on the left remains significant in his country, he believes “the large part” of the Social Democrats there are “in a position of rethinking”.

He said he has long been keen to follow the Social Democrat party line, believing that his country’s independence in military policy gives it freedom to act for peace on the world stage and that such a strategy should be maintained.

But he said that in recent years, first after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and then after its attack on Ukraine in 2014, he has begun to reassess the potential value of NATO’s mutual defense commitments.

When Russia sought a takeover in Kyiv on February 24, he turned around.

“We made decisions after the Second World War that related to the situation at the time,” said Gustavsson. “We have to look at this again now and my conclusion would be that I personally see that NATO is probably the best solution we can get.” In Sweden and Finland even the skeptics come to NATO offers - POLITICO

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