Finland and Sweden do not have a fast track to join NATO. If they apply for membership, they must be able to show they can meet NATO’s political, military, legal, resource and security preconditions, or at least have a plan to address any obvious shortfalls.
Finnish and Swedish politicians have reacted negatively to Russia’s demand that NATO should guarantee not to enlarge further, stressing that each nation has the right to determine its own security policy.
In his New Year’s speech, Finland’s president Sauli Niinistö stated that his country’s room to manoeuvre and freedom of choice also include the possibilities of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership. He was later seconded by prime minister Sanna Marin. Sweden’s relatively inexperienced prime minister Magdalena Andersson restricted herself to indicating a preference for dialogue over sabre-rattling, but defence minister Peter Hultqvist stated that it is entirely up to Sweden to decide whether it wants to join NATO.
Much of the media has simplified these messages to read that NATO membership is in the hands of Helsinki and Stockholm alone. In reality, all current members of the Alliance would have to approve each and every application.
No Fast Track
The Finnish and Swedish security debate often mentions the ‘NATO option’. The official view in Helsinki is that Finland retains the options of joining a military alliance and of applying for NATO membership. In Sweden, a majority in Parliament views joining NATO as a possible security policy option if deemed necessary.
But there is no fast track to NATO membership, even for democratic, stable and wealthy Partnership for Peace (PfP) partners such as Finland and Sweden. This ‘NATO option’ is an invention of Helsinki and Stockholm. NATO has no policy or prior agreement that would give Finland and Sweden more right to NATO membership than, say, Georgia or Ukraine. If Finland or Sweden apply, the hesitation of just one Ally would be enough to delay or block their acceptance.
Finland and Sweden could join the Alliance only by following the usual procedure. This means they would need to meet NATO’s political, military, legal, resource and security preconditions, or at least have a plan to address any obvious shortfalls.
The requirements include public support for membership, where neither Finland nor Sweden currently excel. According to a December 2021 public opinion poll commissioned by the Finnish Advisory Board for Defence Information, only 24 percent of the respondents supported Finnish membership of NATO while 51 percent were against. A 2020 poll conducted in Sweden by the SOM institute found 27 percent of the respondents supporting Swedish membership, and 32 percent against.
The requirements also include measures of defence spending. While Finland meets NATO’s 2 percent of GDP target, Sweden does not even have the ambition to do so. It would face serious questions about how it would deliver on article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO’s founding document, which commits the member states to maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.
All Allies must agree that the applicant can be invited to accession negotiations, at which NATO officials and the applicant country will agree the measures that need to be put in place to enable accession. The accession protocols—amendments to the North Atlantic Treaty that will permit the invited country to become a member of NATO—must then be ratified by all parliaments in NATO member states—often the most time-consuming hurdle. These protocols must next be signed by representatives of each of the existing NATO member countries. All in all, it took Montenegro and North Macedonia, NATO’s most recent members, 18 and 20 months respectively to become full members of the Alliance.
There are no realistic shortcuts to speed up this process. Bypassing national parliaments to remove the longest hold-up, for example, would raise fundamental questions about the nature of the Alliance. Moscow, which has for many years done its utmost to prevent further NATO enlargement, is probably better aware than many politicians in Helsinki and Stockholm of the means it could apply to slow the process in capitals. Many existing Allies would likely already be concerned about triggering a heightened level of tension, or even an armed conflict, with Russia.
A Military Alliance
A crucial consideration is that NATO membership is not only about legal and political arrangements, but also about the development of collective military capability. NATO must work to ensure that its command and force structures allow it to fulfil its three core tasks.
The Alliance thus harmonises the military capability development efforts of its members over a period that is measured in years, not weeks or months. Furthermore, member states post a significant number of experienced officers and non-commissioned officers in peacetime to the NATO command structure that forms the backbone of NATO’s military forces.
In terms of Sweden and Finland’s possible accession, the existing Allies will certainly question the benefit to NATO of admitting new members that have not yet been able to fully contribute to the security of all other Allies.
In short, the ‘NATO option’ imagined in Helsinki and Stockholm is far from guaranteed, but would be a lengthy and difficult process. The accession of either of these two countries is anything but imminent.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).