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HELSINKI — Finn President Sauli Niinistö has described future NATO membership for the non-aligned Nordic country as an "available option," but insists that any move to join would require a national referendum.

The commander in chief of Finland's armed forces, Niinistö likened the constitutional process and roadmap needed to apply for NATO membership to that of Finland's formal application to join the European Union in the early 1990s.

NATO membership has surfaced as a hot topic among political parties and the Finnish electorate as Finland heads to fresh parliamentary elections in mid-April.

"At this time no party leader is advocating NATO membership but, on the other hand, all are considering the possibility," said Niinistö.

Finland's deepening defense relationship with Sweden has raised the prospect of a joint leap by the two neighbors into NATO at some stage. However, discussions between the two states on establishing a bilateral defense pact so far have not mentioned support for such a strategy.

The strengthening long-term relationship between Finland and NATO was aired during talks here between NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb on March 5.

The meeting covered significant neighborhood events, including Russia strengthening its military presence in the High North and the Baltic Sea areas; the fallout from the regional instability caused by the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine; NATO's role in enhancing security and stability in the Baltic Sea area; and future cooperation between Finland and NATO.

"We reaffirmed our commitment to the development of the Finland-NATO partnership cooperation in which we already have a long history behind us. International security and defense policy cooperation is crucial to Finland; it complements our own defense in an important way. NATO partnership offers the best opportunities and concrete added value to the development of our national defense," Stubb said.

Stoltenberg also held meetings, during the visit to Helsinki, with Finland's Foreign Affairs Minister Erkki Tuomioja and Defense Minister Carl Haglund, as well as representatives of the Finnish legislature's parliamentary Defense and Foreign Affairs committees.

As evidence of Finland's deepening cooperation with NATO, the armed forces is engaged in a series of crisis management exercises with the alliance and other Partnership for Peace countries. Scheduled to run to March 10, the NATO CMX (Crisis Management Exercise) 2015 weeklong exercises also include contributions from Sweden, Ukraine, Japan and Australia.

NATO CMX 2015 is centered on a fictitious scenario in which a military conflict erupts between two distant states with consequent humanitarian and maritime security implications.

Email: godwyer@defensenews.com

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