NATO flag flying at NATO Headquarters Brussels. (NATO)
HELSINKI — Finland’s electorate will ultimately decide whether Finland will join NATO. According to President Sauli Niinistö, the commander in chief of Finland’s armed forces, a popular referendum would be needed before the Eduskunta is asked to ratify legal changes in the country’s constitutionally neutral status.
“It is imperative that a comprehensive review of Finland’s security take place before a decision is reached regarding Finland’s position on joining NATO. The issue must have a national consensus, and a referendum required before a final decision could be made,” Niinistö told Finnish public broadcaster YLE.
Niinistö confirmed that his office is organizing a roundtable discussion, centered on the implications of NATO membership, at the president’s southwest coast summer residence in Kultaranta. To take place by mid-June, the meeting will bring together some of the country’s top political, legal and security leaders and strategists.
The gathering at Kultaranta will not only debate the advantages and disadvantages of joining NATO, but also analyze the potential for a more militarized Russia destabilizing the political and security environment in the Nordic and Baltic-rim region.
Although the NATO route is supported by Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen and Defense Minister Carl Haglund, it is unlikely that NATO membership will emerge as an urgent cause ahead of parliamentary elections in April 2015.
The April initiative taken by Finland and Sweden to deepen bilateral defense cooperation is regarded in some political quarters as a possible first step to a unified leap by both countries in to NATO after 2016.
“At this point it is difficult to predict what will emerge from closer bilateral defense collaboration with Sweden, and if it can improve collective defense readiness and capability. We may know more when the joint military working group delivers its preliminary report identifying areas for cooperation in October. At this juncture, there is no talk of a one-leap strategy,” said Jussi Niinistö, chairman of Finland’s Parliamentary Committee on Defense.
Sweden and Finland essentially abandoned their historic rigid-style neutrality when they signed up to NATO’s bilateral Partnership for Peace program (PfP) in 1994 and joined the European Union (EU) in 1995.
Apart from economic considerations, EU membership was regarded by both countries as a “safe haven” in a post-Cold War Europe, while the PfP offered Finland and Sweden the opportunity to achieve greater interoperability in forces and equipment through practical military-to-military cooperation and exercises with NATO.
The NATO membership issue has divided opinion within Katainen’s conservative-left administration. While Katainen’s National Coalition and Haglund’s Svenska Folkpartiet (Swedish People’s Party- representing Finland’s minority Swedish speaking community) are firmly pro-NATO, coalition partners the Social Democrats and Green League oppose any such move.
“We do not need to be in NATO. Finland’s security policy should be to strengthen and secure our long-term defense organization and national security through the EU,” said Finland’s Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja.
“Finland has the longest border of any Western European country [833 miles] with Russia. Joining NATO would bring more problems than it would solve,” Tuomioja added, in a reference to how a decision by Finland to join the alliance might impact on the country’s future trade and security relationship with Russia. ■