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Finland announces nation will apply to join NATO; Sweden backs membership

Finland announces nation will apply to join NATO; Sweden backs membership
President Niinistö and Prime Minister Marin announce Finland's intention to apply to join NATO at a joint press conference on Sunday. Photo courtesy Matti Porre/Office of the President of the Republic of Finland

May 15 (UPI) -- Sweden's governing Social Democratic Party announced Sunday that it would vote in favor of joining NATO hours after Finland said it would apply to do the same.

The Social Democratic Party has long favored neutrality and nonalignment but like Finland has changed its stance since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.

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"We Social Democrats consider that the best for Sweden and the Swedish people's security is that we join NATO," Prime Minister Andersson said during a news conference Sunday in Stockholm.. "This is a decision that we have made after very careful consideration,"

The party said in a statement that Sweden, a longtime opponent of nuclear armament, had reservations about joining a nuclear alliance.

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"The Social Democrats will thus work to ensure that Sweden, if the application is approved by NATO, expresses unilateral reservations against the deployment of nuclear weapons and permanent bases on Swedish territory," the party said in its statement.

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However, some NATO members including Norway, one of the 12 found countries of the alliance, are also opposed to nuclear armament.

Andersson said that the decision to end Sweden's nonalignment "is not a decision to be taken lightly," according to a translation from The New York Times.

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Finland announced earlier Sunday that it would apply to join NATO, ending decades of neutrality amid Russia's war in Ukraine.

The decision was announced by President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin during a press conference in Helsinki, who said the plan still needs to be ratified by the country's parliament before it can formally apply.

"A lot has happened. This is a historic day. A new era is opening up. I would like to pay special attention to how democracy has worked in Finland," Niinistö said at the beginning of the press conference.

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"I mean Finnish people with their opinions, political parties, government, parliament. Together, they have given a test of the strength of democracy."

Marin said that the country hopes the ratification process "would be as short as possible and it would go very smoothly."

The vote to approve membership in NATO must be unanimous by the member nations.

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She addressed concerns about being admitted into NATO after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters Friday he didn't "hold positive views" about the decision. Once filed, the application to join NATO is required to be approved by all 30 members of the alliance.

"We haven't had any indication in NATO that there would be any problems for Finland's or Sweden's membership in NATO. We have all the capabilities. We already are very interlinked with NATO and we are close partners to NATO," Marin said.

"We have seen some statements that there are some questions still but I think it's very important that we will have these discussions with the countries, with the ministers and with the other leaders that we have, in a very calm manner and discuss all the issues that there may be."

Niinistö added that he was "confused" by Erdogan's comments because he had a discussion with his Turkish counterpart last month who said he would assess the application "favorably."

"I thanked him and he was very pleased receiving my thanks," Niinistö said. "So you can understand that I am a bit confused."

Niinistö said he hopes Turkey would provide a "very clear answer" about its stance on Finland's membership and that he is prepared to have another discussion with Erdogan "about the problems he has raised."

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When asked by a reporter how Finland's membership with NATO could change its relationship with Russia, Niinistö said that "we have to keep in mind that NATO membership does not change geography."

"We will always have that big border line, both sea and land, and Russians behind that," Niinistö said.

The president added that there has been "very good cooperation" in the past between Finland and Russia, as well as Estonia, regarding oil tankers passing through the narrow Gulf of Finland.

"These types of elements we have to take care of in the future too," Niinistö said.

Niinistö said he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday to notify him of the country's intention to join NATO.

According to a statement from the Kremlin, the two leaders had a "frank exchange of views" in which Putin "stressed that abandoning the traditional policy of military neutrality would be a mistake."

"There are no threats to Finland's security. Such a change in the country's foreign policy may have a negative impact on Russian-Finnish relations, which for many years have been built in the spirit of good neighborliness and partnership cooperation, and were mutually beneficial," the statement reads.

Finland's decision was announced as foreign ministers in the NATO alliance gathered in Berlin, Germany, for an informal meeting.

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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the former prime minister of Norway, said during a press conference Sunday that the alliance would ensure a "quick and swift response" to the applications from Sweden and Finland.

"If Finland and Sweden apply and join NATO then that will be a historic moment for Europe, for Finland, Sweden, for NATO, and for a whole transatlantic bond," Stoltenberg said.

"It will contribute to strengthen Finland and Sweden, NATO and also strengthen stability across the Euro Atlantic area."

Stoltenberg also addressed Sweden's concerns about joining NATO and said the alliance is "ready to sit down with Sweden and Finland to address their concerns."

"When an ally raises concerns, we have proven over decades in NATO that we are able to sit down and then find consensus, find a way to agree, and then move forward. And that's my intention. That's my plan," he said.

"I am confident that we will be able to do so also in this case because all allies realize the historic magnitude of the moment. This is a historic opportunity we need to seize and that has been expressed by allies and also discussed yesterday evening."

If both countries are approved into NATO, the total number of members would increase to 32.

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Current NATO members that share borders with Russia include Norway, Estonia and Latvia. Estonia and Latvia both joined NATO in 2004 with neighbor Lithuania.

Other countries on the alliance's eastern flank include Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.

Poland, Hungary and Romania joined NATO in 1999 while Slovakia and Bulgaria joined in 2004. Turkey has been a member since 1952.

In 2008, NATO promised to give Ukraine full membership, which Putin has long seen as a threat. Ukraine joined NATO as a partner in June 2020 but does not currently benefit from collective defense agreements.

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