Finland on Cusp of Joining NATO, but Maybe Not With Sweden

BRUSSELS — Finland’s Parliament on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed all the legislation necessary for joining NATO, subject only to the ratification of its bid by the Parliaments of Turkey and Hungary.

Finland and Sweden had pledged to enter the alliance “hand in hand,” but Sweden’s application has been held up by Turkey. So if Turkey and Hungary soon approve the Finns’ application, as is expected, Finland will join NATO even without its Nordic partner.

In Finland’s 200-member Parliament, 184 voted in favor, seven voted against, and one abstained. Political leaders took up the vote before elections scheduled in April for a new Parliament, in order to avoid any delay.

Finland pushed Sweden to apply to join NATO after Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago. Both countries are members of the European Union, but judged that their traditional policies of military nonalignment were untenable after Russia’s unprovoked attack.

Turkey has indicated that it may split the applications, having little difficulty with Finland but arguing that Sweden needs to do more to satisfy Ankara’s demands for a tougher stance against terrorism and Kurdish separatists. Turkey also wants some Kurds extradited from Sweden to face terrorism-related charges.

In a news conference in Helsinki on Tuesday, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, expressed confidence that both Sweden and Finland would soon enter the alliance and that new trilateral talks would take place next week in Brussels.

NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, and Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland at a news conference in Helsinki on Tuesday.Credit…Kimmo Brandt/EPA, via Shutterstock

NATO hopes that Turkey and Hungary will agree before the alliance’s next summit meeting, in mid-July in Vilnius, Lithuania. The Parliaments of the other 28 current members have approved both countries’ applications, but all 30 members must agree.

Hungary’s Parliament began debating the ratifications on Wednesday and could vote this month. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who controls the government and legislature with a tight fist, has said he supports both applications, but recently raised the possibility that members of Parliament from his governing Fidesz party might not.

He said they were worried that the admission of Finland would increase the risk of conflict by creating a new NATO border with Russia stretching more than 800 miles, far longer than Russia’s short borders with the alliance members Estonia, Latvia and Poland.

Hungary has a long record of leveraging its veto power within the European Union over sanctions against Russia to try to secure concessions on other issues, primarily those involving money, and it now seems to be doing the same thing over the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO.

Mr. Orban has combined his own tentative support for the admission of Finland and Sweden with angry complaints that the two would-be members — which, like many others in the European Union, have criticized Hungary’s drift into authoritarianism — have been “spreading blatant lies about us.” Mr. Orban asked last week: “How does someone want to be our ally in a military regime if they are unscrupulously spreading lies about Hungary?”

Hungarian politicians complain that Sweden and Finland have been openly critical of Hungary’s abuses of the rule of law. Concerns over the rule of law and corruption have led Brussels to hold up about 6.3 billion euros, about $6.7 billion, in European funds due to Hungary.

Mr. Orban has also been eager to keep close ties to Russia, on which Hungary depends for energy, and he has worked to water down some E.U. sanctions aimed at the Kremlin and its cronies.

Russia, for its part, responded angrily to the applications of Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

In Finland’s 200-member Parliament, 184 voted in favor, seven voted against, and one abstained.Credit…Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva, via Reuters

But analysts say there is little chance the Hungarian Parliament, in which Fidesz has a large majority and almost always votes as Mr. Orban instructs, will block the entry to NATO of Finland and Sweden when it votes later this month.

Mate Kocsis, the head of the Fidesz caucus in Parliament, said last week that the legislative body would send a delegation to Finland and Sweden to gain “information” so that lawmakers could make an informed decision. He later acknowledged that there is “very little chance” that they would vote to keep Finland and Sweden out of NATO.

If Hungary approves the applications and Turkey approves just Finland for now, Finland will reluctantly join NATO without Sweden. All that is required, once President Sauli Niinisto of Finland signs the legislation as expected, would be to deposit the act in Washington, the repository for the NATO founding treaty.

“The Hungarian government has made it clear that they will start the discussion within a few days, and I hope that they will ratify soon,” Mr. Stoltenberg said, while Turkey “has expressed concerns mainly about Sweden.”

In any case, he said: “Finland and Sweden are in a much better place now than before they applied, because as invitees Finland and Sweden sit at the NATO table, are integrated into the NATO civilian and military structures. They are also provided bilateral security assurances. So it’s inconceivable that there would be any threat against Finland and Sweden without NATO reacting.”

Charly Salonius-Pasternak, an analyst with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said after the vote that “Finland has never been in an equally good and safe position militarily.”

Finland’s “defense pillar has been strengthened, bilateral and multilateral cooperation has been strengthened, we have received security promises from NATO member countries,” he told the state broadcaster Yle. “There is a cultural change in our thinking in that we’re no longer alone, which has been a traumatic, mythical way of thinking in Finland.”

Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels, and Andrew Higgins from Warsaw. Johanna Lemola contributed reporting from Helsinki, Finland.

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