Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (left) and Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo during a joint press conference of Finnish and Swedish prime, foreign and defence ministers in Helsinki, Finland, on November 27, 2023. The prime ministers' meeting with the foreign and defence ministers focused on the close cooperation between Finland and Sweden in the NATO membership process. LEHTIKUVA


Most observers, including journalists and politicians, seem to agree that Finland and Sweden are entering into a new phase in their bilateral relationship. Of course, the reason spells NATO. Two questions could be asked: Is a NATO membership really needed to improve or deepen an already close relationship? Second, Will NATO membership somehow change the nature of this bilateral relationship?

It is well known that defence cooperation between the two countries has flourished since 2014 after the Crimean coup. Everything seemed possible, apart from a formal defence alliance. The defence ministers, we were told, met each other more often than with their families…

I guess Finland at some stage would have ripened to a formalisation, but I doubt Sweden would have been ready to take that step in the absence of a more concrete threat. However, when Finland made its intention to join NATO in the spring of 2022 clear, a bilateral alliance suddenly was an alternative to Swedish membership. But this was just a late, desperate improvisation to avoid a problematic decision that awaited the social democrats governing Sweden.

So, my answer to the first question above is: Yes, NATO is needed to tear down the last barriers for an integration of Swedish and Finnish defence planning and operative cooperation. The long-time, history-based Swedish hesitation to abandon its alliance-free position would have prevented a formal union, regardless of the ever-deepening cooperation between the two countries.

Personally, during a decade or more, I have promoted an ambitious model for Swedish-Finnish cooperation. With a slight exaggeration it has been stated that this cooperation is the closest possible between two independent nations, perhaps most successful in a global perspective. If this is a fact, I think it is fair to ask why this cooperation has not produced any supranational institutions? Neither country has, as far as I know, suggested to transfer some of its activities to a bilateral body with full authority to take binding decisions on behalf of the two countries.

Considering the amount of power that the two countries have delegated to the European Union, it is remarkable that the same countries have not been able to agree on anything similar. Perhaps time will come and if it comes, civil defence and preparedness may be the right area for a start. Russia´s invasion of Ukraine underlined the importance of advance storage of essential items and the risks caused by long and uncertain supply chains. From a Finnish perspective, the Swedish ports are critical due to the facts of geography.

My second question relates to the time after the Swedish NATO membership has been secured. What follows is that both countries will become fully integrated into the structures of the alliance and they form a common space in all military planning. Does this mean that there is still room for bilateral initiatives? I believe that there should be because I am sure that NATO does not have the answer to all questions with relevance for our security.

Sweden will gradually catch up with Finland in the fields of civil preparedness and training of conscripts serving as reservists. Hopefully, the authorities will seize the opportunity to streamline procedures and procurement along and above the rules of the alliance. One-sided reliance on the alliance is not wise – wisdom is to accept that our countries remain first-hand responsible for their national defence.

2022, the historical year of change, brought our countries together but it also revealed some differences. A respectable section of the Swedish population considered the long history of military non-alignment as an integral part of the national heritage and appreciated the image of Sweden as a global peacemaker with a humanitarian mission. Joining a defence alliance is seen by some as break not only with the past, but also with a lesser role for Sweden in the global community.

Finland, on the other hand, made a quick and rather effortless policy change, much rooted in historical and wartime experience.

It remains to be seen if this difference in accepting the inevitability of change will reflect on coming foreign policy making. Before 2022, I maintained that, eventually, successful defence cooperation between our two countries will demand some level of foreign policy coordination. Both in theory and practice it is difficult to imagine obvious discrepancies between policies in these fields.

When the Swedish NATO membership is completed, this issue will come to the fore. Even though it has become harder to point at big foreign policy differences, it seems rational that we consult both within EU and NATO in a systematic way. Preferably, also Norway should be part of such close consultations – our cooperation in the north is something which must give an impetus to a closer relationship when we all three countries are members of the same alliance.


By Pär Stenbäck
Author Pär Stenbäck is a Minister and Chair of the New Foreign Policy Society of Finland

Pär Stenbäck is a former Finnish politician who has been an MP, Minister of Education, and of Foreign Affairs in the years before 1985. For a period of twenty years, he held leading positions in the Red Cross movement, among these as Secretary-General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Geneva). He is a founding member of ICG and the European Cultural Parliament ECP. He received the honorary title as Minister in 1999. Today he is chairing the New Foreign Policy Society in Finland (NUPS) since 2017. He contributes regularly to news media.