HELSINKI — A proposal from Sweden's NATO-skeptic Center Party that the country should join the alliance in conjunction with non-aligned neighbor Finland has reignited the NATO debate in Sweden.
The proposal, made in a joint statement by Center Party leader Annie Lööf with defense and foreign affairs spokesmen Kerstin Lundgren and Daniel Bäckström, will be put to the party’s annual conference in Falun at the end of September.
"It would be natural that part of our deepening [defense] cooperation with Finland will also involve working together to seek membership in NATO," according to the statement. "We believe such a course would not only strengthen the ability of our two countries to contribute to the stability and security in our immediate area, but also in international security efforts."
The Center’s proposal contains three core conditions that will be presented at the party’s convention — that Sweden applies for NATO membership jointly with Finland; that membership is contingent on NATO troops or nuclear weapons not being stationed permanently in Sweden; and that NATO agrees to work with Sweden to create a Nordic nuclear-free zone.
"Our conditions are reasonable. Norway’s membership agreement with NATO included stipulations on no permanent troops or nuclear weapons," Bäckström said.
If Finland and Sweden joined NATO concurrently, said Lööf, it would mean that all Nordic states, including Norway, Denmark and Iceland, would be NATO members.
"This would strengthen the Nordic voice on global foreign and security issues, and provide us with more opportunities to jointly influence NATO's future development," Lööf said.
Russia is staunchly opposed to Finland or Sweden joining NATO. In June, Viktor Tatarintsev, Russia's ambassador to Sweden, warned that both countries could become the subject of Russian "countermeasures" if they abandoned their non-aligned status.
"Sweden’s security is best built in cooperation with others," Bäckström said. "The NATO issue is more in the limelight this year because the security climate has changed. We do not believe that our membership in NATO would heighten a potential threat from Russia. More countries have joined NATO in recent years. It is natural for Sweden to want to join the alliance."
The pivotal shift in the Center’s view of NATO is driven by a more militaristic and threatening Russia. The Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea has changed the security landscape for all Nordic and Baltic governments in the region.
The Center’s policy reversal on NATO could prove a tide-turning moment, said Tomas Frings, a Berlin-based political analyst.
"The Center and the Christian Democrats were the two most NATO-skeptic parties in the center-right alliance government led by then-Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt," Frings said. "They effectively blocked the natural desire of the Moderates and the Liberals to move Sweden closer to NATO membership."
As a united force, all four parties could pump up the pressure for membership and compel the Socialist-Green government to take a "formal position on the NATO question," Frings said.
Reinfeldt's center-right alliance government was ousted and replaced by the current Socialist-Green administration, composed of the Social Democrats and the anti-NATO Green Party, after parliamentary elections in September 2014.
The Center’s altered position on NATO sees it join the Moderates and the Liberals in Sweden’s enlarged pro-NATO membership camp.
Sweden’s relationship with NATO via the Partnership for Peace arrangement lacks the benefits that come with full membership, noted the joint statement.
"We cannot count on NATO to come to our rescue in the event of a military conflict," the joint position statement reads. "If Sweden falls victim to a military attack, we are today directly dependent on outside support. We lack the ability to defend ourselves for an extended period."
Sweden lacks the ability to defend itself for a long period of time, Lööf said.
"At the same time, NATO is very clear about the fact that Sweden cannot rely on military support if we are not a full member of the organization. We can no longer close our eyes to that," said the Center leader.
The Christian Democrats, which along with the Center, Moderates and Liberals composed the previous alliance government, is also leaning toward a NATO membership position. The party is primed to debate the issue at its political convention in October.
"Sweden is a relatively small country with a strategically important location in the Baltic Sea region. It is our strategic assessment that we cannot remain neutral and alone. We need to cooperate with others to get the best out of our defense capabilities, and we need to do that as part of NATO," said Ebba Busch Thor, the Christian Democrat’s leader.
The Center’s newfound support for membership, coupled with its move into the pro-NATO camp, creates the potential for a unified push to pressure the Socialist-Green government to put the issue before the electorate, said Frings.
"The ruling Social Democrats are more focused on building defense partnerships with NATO, the United States, the European Union and their Nordic neighbors. The Center has adopted the view that while defense partnerships are important, they offer a false sense of security if Sweden is attacked and left to essentially defend itself alone," Frings said.
The Socialist-Green government could potentially support a call for a referendum, but there would have to be evidence of rising public support for NATO membership, Frings said.
"It is important to understand how fresh the Center leadership’s pro-NATO support is. This issue is certain to divide opinion within the party. The impending convention will reveal the extent of opposition by the party faithful to this huge shift in direction," Frings said.
A poll conducted by the Gothenburg-based SOM Institute in May revealed that 31 percent of Swedes favored NATO membership; a similar poll conducted in 2012 showed only 17 percent support.
For its part, the Socialist-Green government is prioritizing defense spending at a time when the military’s budget will need to significantly stretch to afford big-ticket acquisitions, including new Gripen fighters and modernized submarine and surface warship fleets.
The government has also focused on defense partnership agreements, ensuring that all major new equipment bought by the Swedish armed forces is fully NATO-compatible to boost interoperability between Swedish, NATO, Nordic and EU-forces.
"Sweden has developed an interoperability with the NATO defense alliance that is as high as is the case of many NATO members. The partnership is now central to the Swedish armed forces' operational capacity," Bäckström said.
In August, the Swedish government said it was moving forward with plans to deepen defense cooperation with the United States. Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said that having the US and Swedish flags fly side-by-side during joint exercises would "send a clear message to Russia" about Sweden’s resolve and intent.