22nd Sep 2023


Sweden's Nato debate resurfaces

  • The Swedish parliament, the 'Riksdagen'. Sweden has never been a Nato member - so why the debate now?

You might have seen the headlines about a Swedish parliament majority backing the 'Nato option'. But before you draw the conclusion that Sweden anytime soon will apply for membership - hold your horses! There is still a vast majority against membership in parliament.

So what is behind the headlines? There are some factors to point out to some interesting coincidences in timing. But, first, the necessary background to the Swedish debate.

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Neighbouring Finland has had an articulated Nato option for a quarter of a century. It is the same option that every European country has, including Sweden.

This option is stated in Nato's 'open door' policy from Article 10 of the Charter. The hindrance to joining Nato is only that approval is needed from every member state.

But Finland has formulated this on her own, as an outspoken national position, that perhaps - some time in the future - Finland will join Nato.

In practical terms it is a 'bear-scarer' (a device to scare off the bears found in the Nordic forests, and, of course, the symbol of Russia happens to be a bear), so to speak. Handy to have when you live in a northern forest. In the Finnish case it is a signal to Moscow: 'if you get to close, we can go in this direction'. It is a form of clever political instrument of deterrence.

Finland, with its history, is not Sweden.

The Swedish concept was established during the Cold War, with a focus of military non-alignment. The idea was to officially stand between the East and the West (and secretly cooperate militarily with the West).

This is a matter of identity for a lot of people in the governing Social Democratic party, which is in a minority government with the Greens, but with budgetary support of the Centre party and the Liberal party. The government is also relying on the acceptance of the Left Party. This makes the government's support fragile.

The Greens and the Left party oppose Nato membership, together with the Social Democrats. And so does the Sweden Democrats (SD), the populist party which in European Parliament is a part of the ECR-group - which now supports the idea of declaring that you could do something everyone knows you could do sometime in the future, even if you have no thought of doing it.

On the side of joining Nato are the four centre-right parties; Centre party and the Liberal party, which cooperate on the budget with the government, and the Moderates and Christian Democrats.

So why did Sweden Democrats gang up together with the pro-Nato parties after motions from the Centre Party and the Liberal party?

The official reason, and the argument in the motion, is logical and easy to understand.

Why on earth should you say that you will not do something that you might do, or need to do, in the future due to developments in Baltic sea?

And when Sweden is cooperating more and more closely with Finland it is natural that Sweden and Finland use the same language in security politics, with the same tools or 'bear-scarers' if you like.

And the centre-left government in Finland, led by Social Democrat Sanna Marin, has no trouble with having an option to join Nato.

Sweden Democrats try a 'rebranding'

But for Sweden Democrats, there are also domestic concerns.

The party aims to become more 'acceptable', in order to join a future budget cooperation or even a government after the election in 2022.

The Moderates and Christian Democrats have stated that they are willing to form a government that needs the active support from SD to secure a budget, something that led the Liberals and the Centre party to instead turn to the Social Democrats after the last election.

SD knows that its historic anti-EU-views, and softness on Russia, is a no-go, especially for the Moderates.

So, in EU politics, SD is no longer advocating a 'Swexit' (a Swedish exit from the EU).

After being noted as one of the most pro-Russian parties at the 2014 European Parliament elections, it has been working on this as well.

The most openly pro-Russian politicians have left the party, either thrown out (as per the whole youth wing), or just silently moved on.

By allowing an opening for the Nato option, the party is doing more work to smarten up its public appearance.

The move is also smart because the party is truly divided on this issue. A poll, admittedly three years, ago showed that SD was split in evenly into two factions on the Nato issue. Their position is almost Salomonic.

SD is an opportunistic party, however, and the leadership is flexible enough to change policies in other areas in order to get into power for their core issue: immigration and integration.

The third reason for this happening now is of course the US election.

The pro-Nato side in the Swedish debate has had a low profile the last two years. Donald Trump is the key explanation. Trump's undermining of multilateral organisations and bullying style had put a lid on the debate.

Now with a constructive Biden presidency, there is spring in the air for Atlanticists in Sweden.

But do not expect any quick changes. A Nato membership in the parliament needs a qualified majority, in order to be stable over time.

And that majority will not suddenly appear, even if the SD would shift today and an election was held, as the latest poll gives SD and the centre-right parties only 55 percent. And there is no real shift in sight for the Social Democrats.

So hold your horses, Sweden is not applying to join Nato tomorrow - but the parliament might pressure the government to get the same bear-scarer as Finland.

And that is something good in itself.

Author bio

Patrik Oksanen is a journalist and senior fellow of the Stockholm Free World Forum and member of Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.


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