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Conscious uncoupling: Could Finland break with Sweden on NATO membership?

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By David Mac Dougall
FILE: Finnish troops during training exercise
FILE: Finnish troops during training exercise   -   Copyright  Finnish Defence Forces

NATO leaders are meeting later this month in Madrid, with the war in Ukraine dominating their agenda. There's also the issue of membership applications from Finland and Sweden to consider - a process that was expected to be straightforward for the military alliance but which has stalled after Turkey raised objections

The issues flagged up by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan include perceived support by Stockholm and Helsinki for Kurdish groups that Ankara says are security threats. 

Those concerns are more focussed on Sweden, with its sizeable Kurdish diaspora, and to a lesser extent Finland. 

So should the Finns consider uncoupling their NATO membership bid from Sweden's, if there could be any delays in the process?

That's a question one of Finland's most prominent security policy researchers has raised. 

"Things can change very quickly in just six months as we have seen," says Charly Salonius-Pasternak, from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

"For this reason, I thought it particularly unwise to now say we will do this hand in hand. Certainly, Finnish politicians have said Finland and Sweden will keep each other appraised and that there would be no surprises... but it is odd to want to specifically link the two applications like this," he tells Euronews. 

There has certainly been a disconnect in the messaging from Finland's senior political leadership in recent weeks around this subject. 

Both President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin have said that Finland and Sweden would continue their application process in lockstep.  

However, that seems to be a contradiction to previous Finnish positions that the Nordic nation needs to make sovereign decisions based on an evaluation of its own particular security needs - and that NATO membership should happen as quickly as possible. 

"It is entirely conceivable that Turkey could, for any number of reasons, say yes to Finland but no to Sweden for now, allowing NATO to continue processing Finland's application. And it is a separate application," explains Salonius-Pasternak.

"It would be hard for NATO now, having spoken about an open door policy for so long, to then say we have a Finnish application but we are going to table it on account of another deal. It's possible, but it's hard for NATO to do," he adds.

His point is: Finland and Sweden have acted in coordination up till now, but if the Swedish bid is delayed by Turkey, Finland could press ahead on its own - although there's no concrete timeline for when would be the right moment to uncouple the two NATO membership bids. 

AP Photo
FILE: Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (L), NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde (R)AP Photo

Most voices support a joint membership

Salonius-Pasternak's views are certainly not widely shared in public in Finland, but behind the scenes there is a measure of hand-wringing in ministries and political circles that Finland's entry into NATO might be delayed by doggedly sticking together with Sweden. 

Most Finnish politicians and analysts say there's still merit in remaining joined at the hip with Sweden. 

"To me, it is important, that Finland and Sweden can walk this process together. It makes sense for security reasons, for strategic purposes and because people feel more comfortable with being a new NATO member together with our closest neighbour," says Eva Biaudet, a member of parliament for the Swedish People's Party who sits on Finland's foreign affairs committee.

"The most important reason is nevertheless the fact that it cannot be for Turkey alone to call the shots here and succeed in dividing us, or stopping our accession procedure for reasons that only Erdogan understand. That is why we should stick to our original plan and walk this through together with Sweden, be it, that it may then take some time," she tells Euronews. 

Minna Ålander, a Finnish researcher at the German Institute for International & Security Affairs, says she thinks it would be a "fail" if Finland moved on without Sweden in its NATO application process. 

"There is a very strong narrative that Finnish national security vis-a-vis Russia needs to be the priority. So I do get the point if Sweden is the problem we should go ahead and not put ourselves in this vulnerability. But I don't think it would be a wise move," she says. 

Ålander points to a years-long pattern of increasing bilateral defence cooperation between Finland and Sweden and say it would be "a weird disruption of Nordic unity" for Finland to go it alone with their NATO application. 

"Even if it isn't Erdogan's game to divide us, it would conveniently play into Russian hands to do so," she adds. 

Joel Thungren/AP
FILE - In this photo provided by the Swedish Armed Forces on Aug. 25, 2020, troops prepare in the Baltic Sea region.Joel Thungren/AP

The view from Sweden

There's a prevailing view in Sweden as well that the two countries need to continue their NATO application journey together. 

The upcoming Swedish elections might end up muddying the waters of Sweden's NATO bid for domestic political reasons, but those don't seem to be coming into play just yet. 

"I think operationally speaking it makes sense that Sweden and Finland stick together because we are so intertwined operationally," explains Anna Wieslander from the Atlantic Council in Sweden

"We have a strategic moment to this and I think the Finns were already feeling in March that it would be preferable to move together."

Wieslander points out, as others have, that Sweden and Finland joining NATO brings strategic and military enhancements to the alliance and that sticking together with allies like the US and UK backing the applications would be the best way to move them forward. 

"If you look strategically, perhaps you could say Finland could move alone. But it is so speculative. For both countries there is momentum, and my advice would be to push together."