Finland’s EU minister who is on course to become prime minister later this month may be ready to poke the Russian bear and take Finland into NATO.
The move by Alexander Stubb would end his country’s tradition of neutrality along its 800-mile border with Russia and defy the overwhelming majority of Finns who do not want to join the alliance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated that he wants to see no further expansion of NATO, and the fact that Russia is Finland’s largest trading partner adds further intrigue.
Stubb told Reuters: “We have to aim at maximising Finland’s national security and being part of decision-making, and that happens best as a NATO member. It is absolutely clear that we have to have a comprehensive debate about that.”
He is a long-standing supporter of NATO membership, but Finnish opinion polls show that only 20 percent of his fellow countrymen agree with him.
American diplomats have been working for decades to persuade strategically-placed Finland to join NATO.
Information published by Wikileaks showed a 2005 memo from the then US Ambassador to Finland, Earle I. Mack, saying that “Shifting public opinion on NATO membership will be a long, arduous task, but we should reach out to those Finns who view greater participation in European security initiatives as a stepping stone to NATO membership.”
In 2009, when Stubb was Finland’s foreign minister, an American diplomatic cable quoted Jori Arvonen, senior political advisor to Stubb, “acknowledging that a majority of Finns currently oppose membership,” but that the party leadership “sees the NCP… taking Finland into NATO.”
Stubb declined to say whether he would allow the Finns a referendum on NATO membership, but a US diplomatic cable dated March 2nd 2009 shows that Chargé-d’Affaires Michael A. Butler believes that public opinion can be won over toward membership, and it would not be necessary to have a referendum on joining:
“In Finland a lack of public support will not prevent a government from acting, and public support often follows government policy, as seen when the GoF [Government of Finland] successfully pursued EU membership despite low support.”
This is the same political technique used in EU countries such as France and Ireland to overturn referenda results which rejected EU treaties. It is a manoeuvre with which Stubb, a Brussels veteran, will be familiar.
The current Finnish government has pledged it will not seek NATO membership during this term, but a general election is due next April and Stubb says he wants to see that change in the next parliament.
However, it would be an odd battle on which to expend political capital, when the Finns are more worried about their contracting economy than about questions of foreign policy.
Finland was the only Nordic country to join the euro, and therefore has been damaged by the eurozone crisis more than Sweden, Denmark or non-EU Norway. Its economy has stagnated since 2009. High labour costs have made exports uncompetitive and left Finland’s annual gross domestic product at still 5 percent below its pre-crisis high of 2008.