STOCKHOLM — Like so much of recent Nordic political history, in the end the decision by Sweden and Finland to join NATO came down to the Social Democrats.
On Sunday evening, all eyes were on the Swedish branch, where the party leadership announced it was backing alliance membership, clearing the way for Sweden to file a formal application as early as Monday.
“We Social Democrats think that the best thing for the security of Sweden and the Swedish people is to join NATO,” Prime Minister and Social Democrat leader Magdalena Andersson told a press conference. “It is clear that our freedom from alliances has served Sweden well, but our conclusion is that it wouldn’t serve us as well in the future,” she said.
With the decision on Sunday, the Swedish Social Democrats locked arms with their Finnish sister party, whose decision to support NATO membership on Saturday was the final endorsement needed by their country’s leadership to approve its own application to the Western defense alliance.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg — the former Social Democrat prime minister of Norway — vowed to expedite the applications. “My intention is to have a swift process,” he told reporters on Sunday.
The fact that two Social Democrat prime ministers are now set to lead Sweden and Finland into NATO represents a remarkable turnaround for parties that have blocked such a development for decades.
As recently as early March, Swedish Premier Andersson said joining the alliance would destabilize regional security, while in January, her Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin said she didn’t expect Finnish membership during her time in office.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine.
In a sign of the political adroitness that has allowed Social Democrats to dominate Nordic politics for big chunks of the last century, the two leaders orchestrated a carefully coordinated flip with remarkable speed.
Following a key meeting in Stockholm between Marin and Andersson on April 13, it appeared clearer that both Sweden and Finland were seriously considering a U-turn.
“I think [our decision] will happen quite fast, within weeks, not within months,,” the Finnish leader said on her way into that meeting.
Through an intense schedule of meetings at home and abroad soon after, Swedish and Finnish officials stitched together a consensus within their own parties and national parliaments — and with other NATO leaders — that the two states’ future was in NATO.
At the same time public opinion — at times seemingly feeding and feeding off this new governmental openness to NATO membership — continued to move in favor of an application to the alliance. Recent public opinion polling in Sweden showed that 48 percent of Swedes favor applying versus 25 percent against. Around 60 percent of Finns want to join.
The risk for both the Swedish and Finnish Social Democrat leaders was losing credibility while performing such a dramatic shift in defense policy.
The solution came in part from Swedish and Finnish center-right opposition parties, which as long-term NATO membership supporters could have sought to score political points, but largely elected not to, seemingly in the national interest. A televised debate by party leaders in Sweden last week was a cordial affair, and the parties in the Finnish parliament have sought to present a united front throughout their membership discussions.
On the streets of Helsinki in the past week, local citizens seemed not to dwell on the Social Democrats’ about-face. In a coffee shop opposite the central train station, the barista said she trusted the country’s leaders to make the right call.
“We haven’t been a NATO member until now and things seemed to have worked out alright, but if the government says we need to join now, I am fine with that,” she said.
For Sweden, Sunday’s announcement by the Social Democrats heralds the end of more than 200 years outside formal military alliances during which time the country hasn’t fought a single war.
At the height of the Cold War, Sweden’s high-profile Social Democrat Prime Minister Olof Palme sought to use his country’s perceived military independence to criticize both Moscow and Washington and call for nuclear disarmament.
For its part, Finland sought to strike its own balance between east and west in the post-war decades, wary of further conflict after fighting two brutal wars against the Soviets in the period 1939 to 1944.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, both nations drew closer to NATO, signing up to a cooperation agreement called Partnership for Peace in 1994 and ratifying so-called Host Nation Agreements in 2016, which allow troops from the alliance to operate more easily on Swedish and Finnish territory.
However, the process of moving from close NATO partners to full members will still entail challenges for Stockholm and Helsinki.
Moscow has said the proposed accessions threaten Russia’s security and has promised countermeasures, including moving weapons closer to the two states.
Some existing NATO members, including Turkey, have also raised concerns.
Swedish officials said they met with Turkish counterparts over the weekend to discuss those concerns, and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said he called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday. “The conversation was direct and straight-forward,” Niniistö said.
For Sweden’s Social Democrats, a key factor over recent months appears to have been resolving the NATO question before campaigning starts for a general election in September. The party seems to be concerned that a drawn-out debate over military strategy could distract from key policy areas where it feels it is stronger such as welfare and health care.
But so far, Prime Minister Andersson’s cautious embrace of NATO membership seems to be popular with voters. Support for the Social Democrats, Sweden’s most popular party, has risen to around 32 percent from around 25 percent over the past six months. Their sister party in Finland has been steady in second place there with about 19 percent support.
For the main center-right opposition party in Sweden, the Moderate Party, the apparent resolution of the debate over NATO appears bittersweet. While, like its sister party in Finland the National Coalition Party, it has now resoundingly won the argument, it seems to be struggling to reap a political dividend with two Social Democrat prime ministers standing in the spotlight when the time came to ratify decisions to join the alliance.
At Sunday’s news conference, Sweden’s Andersson took the chance to evoke Swedes’ love for the country as she justified her party’s policy switch.
“We want to live in this free and democratic Sweden,” she said. “It is a Sweden that is worth defending and Sweden will be best defended inside NATO.”