December 4, 2017

Finland’s NATO Membership: An Opportunity Disappearing Beyond the Horizon?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg shakes hands with President of Finland Sauli Niinisto before their meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on November 9, 2016.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg shakes hands with President of Finland Sauli Niinisto before their meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on November 9, 2016.

Each year, toward the end of November, excitement begins to build up among the Finnish foreign and defense policy cognoscenti, as the results of an annual public opinion survey sponsored by the Advisory Board of Defence Information (Maanpuolustustiedotuksen suunnittelukunta, MTS), is to be launched.

The MTS lies organizationally within the Ministry of Defence, which gives its surveys a certain extra amount of respectability. Also, some of the MTS’s questions reach as far back as to the mid-1960’s (1964), which gives scholars and even casual observers plenty of material for further study and comparative research.

Finland being Finland, it would be too much to expect that the variations from year to year would be earthshaking. In fact, most observers marvel at how little the Finnish opinions change: everything around Finland can be in flux, but the average Finn continues to live his life largely unperturbed.

Yet, there are usually some interesting nuances to be noticed. So it is with this year’s MTS survey, which was published on 29 November 2017 and contains several points worth exploring.

First, the main security concerns for the Finnish public seem to be in the realm of what could be called “soft security”: terrorism, mass migrations, and climate change. For example, more than 70 per cent of the people consider global warming as one of the most serious security challenges Finland faces.

Secondly, more and more Finns seem to believe in common defense through the country’s EU membership. This year, as many as 70 per cent of those polled supported that position. In 2016 this opinion was held by only 62 per cent of the polled. In 2015, just 56 per cent agreed with that claim. In the same vein, defense cooperation with the Nordic countries, Sweden in particular, gets a strong support from the Finns.

Thirdly, in 2017 Finns hold a more positive opinion of Russia than in previous years. This year, just 37 per cent of the polled considered the Russian influence in world affairs as a negative development, while in the previous year that figure was as high as 50 per cent. Additionally, while in 2016 just 6 per cent of the Finns considered Russia as having a positive influence in the world, in 2017 that figure has climbed to 14 per cent. It is interesting that this change of opinion is happening against the political and military background of Russia continuing to occupy Crimea, to foment aggression in Ukraine, and to meddle in other countries’ national elections.

Last but not least, perhaps the most interesting question in the opinion poll remains, from year to year, the question of how much support there is for Finnish NATO membership. This question has been asked by the MTS since 1994. Historically, the support for NATO membership was at its highest in the poll carried out in late 2014. Then, just half a year after the Russian aggressive actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, 30 per cent of the Finns supported the Alliance membership.

Since that time, there has been a slight decline in support from one year to another: 27 per cent support in 2015 and 25 per cent in 2016. This year, 22 per cent of the polled want Finland to join NATO, while 62 per cent are against it. There is one particularly worrying detail in the polling results for those who would like to see Finland in NATO: among those in the age bracket of 25-34 years old, last year the support for membership was 27 per cent, while this year it had plummeted to just 13 per cent.

In a separate poll in March 2014 (not carried out by the MTS), this question was posed: ”Should the political leadership of Finland decide to seek NATO membership, would you support it?” In that poll, 53 per cent of the Finns answered affirmatively. For many, this result indicated that it was not so much public reluctance to join the Alliance that was the problem, but rather what was lacking was firm political leadership. If the leadership had been there, the people would have followed.

Be that as it may, it is also true that there is no public pressure whatsoever for the President or the Government to move on the NATO membership issue. In the debates before the rapidly approaching January 2018 presidential elections just one of the seven candidates has declared himself as supporter of NATO membership. Meanwhile, in the MTS polls cited here over 70 per cent of the Finns consider foreign and security policy issues well handled.

As the architect of that policy over the past nearly six years, Mr. Sauli Niinistö, the current President of the Republic, enjoys the unprecedented 82 per cent support in the polls to win the election again and get another six-year presidential term, there is no realistic expectation that the question of NATO membership will show up on the Finnish decision-makers’ agenda any time soon.