The Finnish government officially announced its intention to join Nato on Sunday, as Sweden’s ruling party held a decisive meeting that could pave the way for a joint application.
Less than three months after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, the move is a stunning reversal of Finland’s policy on military non-alignment dating back more than 75 years.
Sweden, which has been militarily non-aligned for more than two centuries, is expected to follow suit with a similar announcement, possibly on Monday.
“This is a historic day. A new era is opening”, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told reporters at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Sanna Marin on Sunday.
Nato membership needs to be approved and ratified by all 30 members of the alliance.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed last-minute objections, but Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said Sunday that Ankara was not opposed to the two countries’ bids.
“Turkey made it clear that its intention is not to block membership,” Stoltenberg told reporters virtually after alliance foreign ministers met in Berlin.
“I am confident we’ll be able to find common ground, consensus on how to move on membership issues,” Stoltenberg said, adding that he was in touch with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Cavusoglu meanwhile lauded Finland’s conciliatory approach in their talks, but criticised Sweden’s foreign minister for “provocative” statements.
Turkey’s objections, directed in particular at Stockholm, focus on what it considers to be the countries’ leniency towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on the EU’s list of terrorist organisations.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken nonetheless insisted he was “very confident that we will reach consensus” on the two countries’ Nato bids.
Niinisto said he was “prepared to have a new discussion with President Erdogan about the problems he has raised”.
Overwhelming Finnish support
Finland’s parliament will convene to debate the membership proposal on Monday.
“We hope the parliament will confirm the decision to apply for Nato membership during the coming days. It will be based on a strong mandate”, premier Marin said.
A vast majority of Finnish MPs back the decision after Marin’s Social Democratic Party on Saturday said it was in favour of joining.
“Hopefully, we can send our applications next week together with Sweden,” Marin had said on Saturday.
The two Nordic countries broke their strict neutralities after the end of the Cold War by joining the EU and becoming partners to Nato in the 1990s, solidifying their affiliation with the West.
But the concept of full Nato membership was a non-starter in the countries until the war in Ukraine saw public and political support for joining the alliance soar.
Finland, which shares a 1,300km border with Russia, has been leading the charge, while Sweden appears anxious at being the only non-Nato country around the Baltic Sea.
Finland is also Sweden’s closest defence cooperation partner.
Many Swedish politicians have said their support is conditional on Finland joining.
On Saturday, the Finnish head of state phoned his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin to inform him of his country’s desire to join Nato, in a conversation described as “direct and straightforward”.
Moscow has repeatedly warned both countries of consequences if they join the alliance.
Putin warned Niinisto that joining “would be a mistake since there is no threat to Finland’s security”, according to a Kremlin statement.
Niinisto said Sunday that while Helsinki is prepared for a Russian response, “little by little, I’m beginning to think that we’re not going to face actual military operations.”
“After the phone call with Putin, I think so even more.”
No other choice
Former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb told the BBC on Sunday that Putin was “the reason we’re joining” Nato.
“We could easily call it Vladimir Putin’s Nato enlargement”, he said.
According to recent polls, the number of Finns who want to join the alliance has risen to over three-quarters, almost triple the level seen before the war in Ukraine.
In Sweden, support has also risen dramatically, to around 50% – with about 20% against.
Sweden’s Social Democrats, led by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, were meeting Sunday to decide whether the party should abandon its historic stance against joining, last reaffirmed at the party’s annual congress in November.
A green light from the party would secure a firm parliamentary majority in favour of joining.
Stoltenberg meanwhile reiterated on Sunday that Nato would look at providing security guarantees for Finland and Sweden during the interim period from their application for membership to accession.