Finland's Prime Minister Alexander Stubb talks to the media on June 26. (Thierry Charlier / AFP)
HELSINKI — The appointment of Alexander Stubb, dubbed a “NATO hawk” by the opposition Finns Party, as Finland’s new prime minister has raised expectations that the non-aligned Nordic state will accelerate a path toward NATO.
The strong pro-alliance leaning of Stubb, who was foreign minister in predecessor Jyrki Katainen’s Cabinet, has triggered anxiety among government and opposition parties that he will lead a major shift in Finland’s national security and defense policy.
“Stubb is so pro-NATO and so right-wing. In essence, he is a radical, market liberal NATO hawk,” said Timo Soini, the chairman of Finland’s Perussuomalaiset (True Finns) party. “The National Coalition Party [NCP] is moving from conservatism to liberalism. It remains to be seen how this will affect Finland’s defense policy and relations with Russia.”
However, Stubb’s appointment is being generally welcomed by Finland’s defense community, which anticipates higher military spending after eight years of cost-savings programs, downsizing of forces and reduced investment.
The immediate hurdle facing Stubb’s pro-NATO position is a Cabinet divided on whether Finland needs the alliance to secure its long-term security.
No significant policy decisions on NATO are likely ahead of April 2015 parliamentary elections, said Defense Minister Carl Haglund.
While Stubb and the NCP’s pro-NATO stance is backed by Haglund’s party, other members of the conservative-left administration, including the Social Democrats, Green League and Christian Democrats, oppose full NATO membership at this time.
NATO membership, Haglund said, may not arise for serious debate during the present government’s term, but it is “very likely” that the issue will be dealt with during the next government’s term in 2015-19.
“I believe the grounds for NATO membership are stronger than ever. Finland’s membership would not pose a threat to anybody,” Haglund said.
Stubb is in talks with government parties on the drafting of an economy-focused strategic policy document. While this document will also deal with certain changes to foreign policy, it is not expected to contain dramatic amendments regarding security and defense.
“There will not be any new formulations regarding NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the European Council,” Stubb said. “At this point we’re emphasizing continuity in Finland’s foreign and security policy, but at the same time it’s clear that there must be some mention of the conflicts on the borders of Europe.”
According to Stubb, the fundamental challenge in his new role will be to “persuade the nation’s leadership and the people” on the merits of NATO membership.
Stubb is “probably” the most openly pro-NATO Finnish prime minister since World War II, said political analyst Timo Soikkanen.
“The crisis in the Ukraine has allowed the pro-NATO political lobby in Finland to sharpen their arguments and become much more vocal,” Soikkanen said.
Finland’s long-term defense and security cooperation and alignments will be defined during the next government, said Juha Sipilä, chairman of the opposition Centre Party.
“The decisive issue regarding NATO is, who will lead the next Finnish government. We believe we are that party. What we do not believe is that Finland needs to change its non-aligned status anytime soon. NATO membership would limit the room for independent political actions. Membership would come with commitments and obligations. What we need to do is strengthen our own national defenses,” Sipilä said.
A Centre-led government, said Sipilä, would increase military spending, including for vital procurement programs.
“In order to have a credible defense, we need to spend more. There is general agreement among all parties in the national parliament that spending is far too low. We do best on operational spending, but our investment in materiel procurement needs to be markedly raised,” Sipilä said.
The latest Helsingin Sanomat poll, conducted June 12, puts the anti-alliance Centre and pro-NATO NCP neck-and-neck to lead Finland’s next coalition government.
The Finnish defense budget will be US $3.8 billion in 2014, the lowest of any Nordic country, said NCP member Ilkka Kanerva, who chairs the newly established cross-party Special Committee on Defense (SCD).
The SCD is tasked with looking at long-term defense requirements and development, including budgeting.
“We cannot expect our military organization to fulfill its duties on the low budget it now has. It’s just not sustainable. Thankfully, there is broad political support to strengthen future budgets,” Kanerva said.
NATO membership is opposed by a majority in the 200-seat Finnish Parliament, but a majority also supports deepening defense cooperation with the EU and Nordic neighbors, Soini said.
“The NATO hawks are in the minority and at last count represent less than one-third of all MPs,” Soini said. “With the proper budgeting and resources, we can handle our own defense without NATO membership. Strengthening cooperation with our Nordic neighbors and the European Union are also viable options that we have.” ■