COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — Ending over 200 years of neutrality in foreign affairs and security policy is properly a hot potato on many Swedish dinner tables these days.
As Russian soldiers continue marching through Ukraine, the Swedes' willingness to join NATO has grown stronger with each step.
Swedish citizens have never been so keen on joining NATO as now. A recent poll by Swedish opinion and social research company Kantor-Sifo shows 59% of respondents support joining NATO if Finland also becomes a member. Another 17% are against membership and 24% are undecided.
Asked whether or not respondents would join NATO without taking Finland’s membership into account, Swedish support for joining NATO dropped to 41% with 26% against. The poll is just the latest example of public opinion in Sweden turning toward a potential NATO membership.
But the willingness to join NATO is rather fragmented among Swedish politicians. Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson rejected the idea in a press conference last month.
"If Sweden were to choose to send in an application to join NATO in the current situation, it would further destabilize this area of Europe and increase tensions," she said. "I have been clear during this whole time in saying that what is best for Sweden's security and for the security of this region of Europe is that the government has a long-term, consistent and predictable policy and that is my continued belief."
Ulf Kristersson, leader of the opposition center-right party Moderates urged the Swedish government to start political discussions on the matter, like Finland had done before Andersson’s statement.
"It is urgent," Kristersson told Swedish news agency TT. "We can't get behind a windbreak and hope that it all blows over and then be surprised by a Finnish decision in a month or two," he said.
Leading Swedish member of the European Parliament Tomas Tobé told FRANCE 24 that he backs ending two centuries of military neutrality in Sweden.
"It is clear that Sweden needs to build security together with others. It is clear that Putin's aggression will not stop with Ukraine. We will have to take responsible decisions for Sweden. For me it is clear that we need the security that NATO membership will provide. I do not think that we should be neutral against Putin. The time for Sweden to be neutral is long past. It's important now that Sweden together with Finland make the decision to join NATO," he said.
Joining NATO would declare a clear stance for future Swedish foreign and security policy. The nonalignment policy has served Sweden well since the Napoleonic Wars in terms of economics, development and national security.
Geographically, Sweden has navigated internationally from a centered position with NATO members Norway and Denmark to the west and south, and Finland to the east which historically had some agreements in a complex relationship with what was then the Soviet Union. That is one reason why Sweden sees an importance in striving for neutrality in armed conflicts, Rikard Bengtsson, lecturer in political science at Lunds University in Sweden, told Courthouse News.
Reactions to Prime Minister Andersson’s stance against sending an application to become a NATO member due to potentially destabilizing Scandinavia was mixed. But the timing to apply now might come with risks for Sweden.
If Sweden and Finland decided to join NATO today, there could be a period of a year or more until all NATO member states agree to let them in. That period could be dangerous for Sweden and Finland as they would have declared their interests in NATO globally without formally being a member, and therefore not part of NATO’s security guarantees, Bengtsson said.
“I think when Prime Minister Andersson made her comment about the destabilizing problem, it may be because she had this short-term perspective in mind. That the timing is problematic. That Sweden would declare allyship without being a member of NATO,” he said.
But Sweden and Finland are already committed to the West in some degree, abandoning absolute neutrality when they first became members of the European Union. Here, their foreign and security policies are intertwined with other member states, Bengtsson noted.
In this year’s NATO military exercise in Norway called “Cold Response 22” Sweden and Finland took part without being formal members of the alliance. And during the Cold War, Sweden was close with individual NATO members. When the Cold War ended, Sweden bought American weapons such as the Patriot air defense missile system from U.S. arms manufacturer Raytheon Co.
“It’s appropriate to label Sweden as being very close to NATO without being a formal member,” Bengtsson said.
While there has been a certain reservation of discussing a potential NATO membership in Finland due to complex ties with the Soviet Union in the past, the discussion emerged openly around their time of EU membership in 1995.
With Finland’s declaration to be open for the so-called “NATO option,” where it was publicly said that the country may consider NATO membership later should security developments require it, Finland became a front-runner in the NATO discussion, despite sharing 800 miles of border with Russia.
Those security developments have changed with Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. Finland is reexamining its security policy. “Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was,” Finish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said last week. She made it clear that any potential Finnish bid to join NATO shall be concluded this spring.
In March, a think tank called the Finnish Business and Policy Forum (Eva) presented results from its “Values and Attitudes Survey” showing that some 60% of respondents would support Finland joining the NATO military alliance.
If Finland becomes a NATO member, the chance of Sweden joining increases significantly.
“While there has been a consensus of being against a NATO membership in Sweden, there have also been a significant number of unsure voters who did not decide whether to be for or against. That is changing with Swedes being more open to the idea if Finland joins,” Bengtsson said.
“Swedes arguing against a NATO membership say that our opportunities in terms of foreign and security policy would change. But I think that is too simplified. All individual NATO member states are dealing with their own ways of doing things on global issues, despite being in NATO,” he said.
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