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22nd Mar 2019

Finland waits for new EU treaty before NATO membership review

Finland could change its official position on NATO membership after the new EU treaty clarifies if there will be any new EU-level defence deal, but in the meantime Helsinki's defence ministry is pushing to join NATO and its army is making technical preparations for membership.

"Our next foreign and defence policy report will not come out before the EU constitution treaty. We are waiting for some kind of solution on that, so probably before 2009 we will have our new report," Finnish prime minister Matti Vanhanen's spokeswoman, Sanna Kangasharju, told EUobserver on Thursday (26 April).

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  • The Finnish army - already takes part in EU battle groups and joint-operations with NATO (Photo: wikipedia)

"The general public opinion [in Finland] would be for a European security solution instead of NATO. But the politicians don't hold out much hope for this - the EU is not a military alliance and any security guarantees given by the EU states are not such as could offer real defence," she added.

The current Finnish white paper on defence dating from 2004 states that Finland will not seek NATO membership but "maintains an option" to join, especially if Finnish public opinion or the security climate change. The position is mirrored by the centrist party of prime minister Matti Vanhanen in its manifesto for 2006 to 2010.

The text of the draft EU constitution - rejected in 2005 by France and the Netherlands but currently undergoing a revival process - foresees solidarity clauses on natural disasters and terrorist attacks, but not energy or defence-related crises. The idea of a real EU military wing is an anathema to neutrals like Ireland or anti-federalist EU states.

But the entry into the Finnish ruling coalition after last year's elections of the more hawkish conservative party has revived the country's internal NATO debate, with conservative defence minister Jyri Häkämies on Wednesday saying on Finnish TV that "NATO membership would in the long term improve Finland's security."

"We see some worrying developments in the security climate," defence ministry spokesman Jyrki Iivonen told EUobserver on Thursday, in reference to the US-Russia row over a new missile shield base in eastern Europe and Moscow's talk of a new "arms race" and a change in the post-Cold War security balance.

Finnish army concerns

He added that the Finnish army's joint work with NATO in Kosovo and Afghanistan is complicated by limitations on intelligence-sharing and joint decision-making relating to NATO non-membership. "I wouldn't call it frustration, but there are difficulties in terms of the effectiveness of our participation," he said.

Mr Iivonen also explained that the Finnish army has for several years been developing its technical capabilities on the basis of NATO compatibility. "If there is a decision on NATO, then we are technically in a good condition," he said, with NATO sources confirming that Finnish NATO accession could proceed quickly if desired.

Public opinion - the latest polls show 60 percent of Finnish people are against joining NATO - is not Helsinki's only consideration in not joining the trans-Atlantic club, however.

To begin with, Finland has an unspoken agreement with EU neighbour and non-NATO country Sweden that Stockholm will be carefully consulted on any defence moves. "It's extremely improbable [that Finland could join NATO without Sweden]," Mr Iivonen said. "We very much go hand in hand."

Finland also has a 1,300 km border and strong economic ties with Russia. In terms of the country's EU history, one of the reasons why it delayed joining the European Union until 1995 is because it was wary of Russia's bilateral reaction in the tense Cold War climate of the 1970s and 1980s.

Prickly neighbour

Russian leader Vladimir Putin last year said NATO membership would be an internal matter for Finland, but Moscow's more recent anti-NATO rhetoric has focused on NATO expansionism, in terms of new bases in the EU's Baltic states or Poland.

"We have no reason to believe the reaction would be different with another neighbouring country," Ms Kangasharju said.

A NATO spokesman told EUobserver that the trans-Atlantic alliance treats Russian statements "with all due respect." But he added that "When it comes to NATO decisions and public statements about NATO's enlargement, it is only NATO that takes the ultimate decisions."

Currently Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Austria, Malta and Cyprus are the only EU states that are not part of the 26-country strong NATO club. Croatia, Macedonia and Albania are the next in line to join, in a process that could take years. Post-Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia are also talking about future NATO membership.

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