Brussels Behind the Scenes: One does not simply walk into NATO

Brussels Behind the Scenes: One does not simply walk into NATO

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES

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One does not simply walk into NATO

Finland and Sweden made their strongest statements yet this week that both countries will apply for NATO membership in the coming months. It is a remarkable turnaround of policy but there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome.

Before 24 February, it would have taken a brave betting man to wager that either Finland or Sweden would join NATO anytime soon. Then Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation” in Ukraine and changed everything.

NATO membership for Finland and Sweden falls into that growing category of policy changes that were once thought either very unlikely or completely impossible, along with Denmark scrapping its defence opt-out or Germany nixing Nord Stream 2.

But here we are, living in that strange new world. On Wednesday, the prime ministers of Finland and Sweden both laid out their stalls, telling the world that their administrations are now working on the application process after a massive swing in public opinion.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


If the two Nordic nations do end up joining the military alliance, it will mean that 23 out of the 27 EU member states will be NATO members. Every official candidate country for EU membership – bar Serbia – are also alliance members.

Austria, Cyprus, Ireland and Malta would be the only EU nations not in NATO, for a variety of reasons.

Austria maintains its neutral stance but that was made to look rather farcical earlier this week when Chancellor Karl Nehammer decided to visit Moscow in what has been derided as a complete diplomatic misfire.

Malta and Ireland also avoid military alliances, although public opinion in the latter has swung since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Polling suggests that nearly half of Irish people want to join NATO.

Cyprus meanwhile is mostly prevented from joining because of its ongoing reunification trials and tribulations. New members are not supposed to import border disputes or any geopolitical tensions that might make life immediately difficult for the alliance.

Some have opined that EU countries actually have little need to join NATO as the bloc’s treaties already contain defence clauses that mean other member states would have to rally to an ally’s aid in the event of an attack.

But the United States is not an EU member and neither is the UK anymore. While anti-NATO, Putin-friendly Marine Le Pen has made it through to the second round of France’s presidential vote. Those are NATO’s nuclear powers all accounted for.

Despite EU attempts to up defence collaboration and spending – efforts which are admittedly starting to pay off – NATO remains in the short- and medium-term the only real security option. Hence Ukraine’s requests early in the invasion to join the alliance.

Would it all be smooth sailing for Finland and Sweden if they do indeed launch official membership bids? NATO boss Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance is ready to welcome them “with open arms” but it may be more complicated than that.

New members have to be approved by the existing members, in much the same way that the EU must unanimously agree to expand. Logically, this should pose no problem but if the last few weeks have reminded us of nothing, it is that this world does not run on logic.

On the European side, it is not impossible to imagine that Hungary could prove to be a fly in the ointment, given Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn’s continued frustration of efforts to help get weapons to Ukraine and sanctions into Russia.

Newly-elected Orbàn still opposes energy sanctions that would actually start to cripple Putin’s war machine and he even suggested that his recent election victory was despite Ukraine’s attempts to meddle in the vote.

Hungary has regularly tried to obstruct EU policies in various sectors over the years but has more often than not relented, either because of some sort of quid pro quo or because of unopposable consensus among the other members.

Whether this would translate to NATO and whether Orbàn needs to bang his “anti-war” drum now that he has been re-elected with a two-thirds majority, is a question that will only be answerable once Finland and Sweden make up their minds.

Across the pond, there may be more trouble ahead. The US senate must approve NATO expansion with a two-thirds majority. In the last big membership intake in 2004 passed without problems with a unanimous vote.

Eighteen years is a long time in politics and the US political landscape is dotted with craters left by Donald Trump’s presidency. Would the Republican party agree to NATO expansion on Russia’s border?

A not-insignificant cohort of Republicans voted against reconfirming support for the alliance at the beginning of April. The rationale for that vote may complicate or even scupper Finland and Sweden’s aspirations if the narrative behind it gains traction.

Trump’s presidency has sparked three points of view: NATO goaded Putin into invading Ukraine – a popular Kremlin propaganda point – the US has domestic issues it should focus on and it is no longer Washington’s job to defend Europe.

Republicans mostly kept Trump in check on NATO policy during his presidency, essentially restricting him to calling Brussels “a hellhole” and shrieking at members to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Whether logic would prevail now is again difficult to predict.

Finland and Sweden’s membership bids could coincide with him entering the 2024 race. There are some big ifs at play here but the most important point is that while NATO may publicly welcome the idea of new members, the process of making it into the club is by no means straightforward.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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