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A Dark Day for Nordic Democracy by Sven R. Larson

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A Dark Day for Nordic Democracy

On May 18th, the governments of Sweden and Finland handed their applications for NATO membership to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. In his brief comment on accepting the applications, Stoltenberg explained that both countries had made their choices to apply based on “thorough democratic processes.”

Rarely do words, spoken with such fanfare, ring so hollow. 

Neither Finland nor Sweden has honored any democratic processes here. Instead of letting the NATO accession issue proceed within their well-established, highly reputable democratic institutions, the two governments decided to steamroll their public and even largely ignore their parliaments.

So essential is it for Sweden and Finland to join NATO that they had to circumvent the democratic bedrock of their nations.

Why? Is democracy only for some aspects of a nation’s governance? 

Did these two governments not expect to be able to sell NATO membership to public opinion? 

The problem is not NATO itself

That would be odd. A NATO membership comes with synergy effects, both in terms of military hardware and know-how. Strategically, NATO can reinforce a nation’s limited resources by placing superpower capabilities within its borders. 

But there are also disadvantages. A permanent, significant increase in military spending can be seen as such, especially in times of fiscal stringency. Sweden and Finland can also get pulled into conflicts far away, such as when NATO bombed Serbia into submission, destroying vast civilian infrastructure in the bargain. 

The lack of democratic transparency is startling, given that this may be an even bigger change in the sovereignty of both countries than their EU accession was 27 years ago. In both Helsinki and Stockholm, the decisions to hand over the country’s national security to an organization run and funded by distant governments barely even included formal parliamentary approval.

Contrary to the words from Secretary General Stoltenberg, the process to deliver a NATO membership application could hardly have been more un-democratic. This should bother Stoltenberg, who is no newcomer to parliamentary democracy. He is the former prime minister of Norway; his father Thorvald Stoltenberg served as both defense and foreign-affairs minister in the Norwegian government. 

Instead of compounding the democratic hypocrisy that the governments in Helsinki and Stockholm had wrapped their NATO applications in, the Secretary General should consider what it means for the reputability of NATO itself, when two supposedly sound democracies must abandon all democratic procedure in order to apply for membership. 

This is no small issue. A democratic form of government is the cardinal difference between the value system that NATO is supposed to defend, and the value system that Russia’s increasingly totalitarian president represents. As Putin descends into moral repugnancy with his war on Ukraine and his clampdown on domestic opposition, it is more important than ever for western governments to draw the line between them and Moscow. 

The applications from Sweden and Finland do nothing to maintain that line. If anything, the two countries have done a fair job of blurring it. In fact, if NATO can accept undemocratic applications from two of the world’s most respected democracies, then what other moral compromises would NATO and its member states be willing to engage in? And for what purpose?

Finland: a veil of silence

The political conversation about NATO membership started earlier in Finland than in Sweden. One of the reasons for this is Finland’s long, complicated history with Russia. After a century as a province of the Czarist empire, Finland seized the opportunity after the 1917 Russian Revolution and declared itself independent. 

As a result of its alliance with Nazi Germany, from the end of World War II, Finland was tied to its eastern neighbor through a Stability and Friendship Pact. In exchange for its preserved independence, Finland pledged to maintain strict military neutrality. 

It maintained this policy even as the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. Knowing that a change would affect its ties to Russia, the Finnish government at least wanted to give the appearance of proceeding with caution toward NATO accession. Therefore, as Russia was building up for its invasion of Ukraine, a public, political conversation started where proponents and opponents engaged with respect and vigor. 

President Sauli Niinistö was one of the proponents of a referendum. 

Then, something happened. Reports Hufvudstadsbladet, one of Finland’s largest daily newspapers:

In February, a previously big topic of conversation disappears entirely: the referendum. The president, who had been advocating either a referendum or another method for confirming public opinion, retreats. On February 5th Niinistö speaks to political journalists about an alternative solution, a “super gallup.”

In other words, a “super opinion poll” could replace a formal referendum. 

The president got what he wanted: on March 14th, government broadcasting company Yle published their new official opinion poll. It showed

growing support for the country to join the NATO military alliance, with 62 percent of respondents saying they are in favour of such a move. The result represents a nine percentage point increase from the last time an Yle poll asked the same question.

Everyone seemed pleased. The NATO conversation disappeared behind a veil of silence. 

Sweden: Imitating democracy

On May 16th, two days before the Swedish government handed in its application for NATO membership, the parliament in Stockholm held a formal debate over the issue. Representatives for six of the eight parties applauded NATO accession and took the opportunity to profusely criticize Russia.

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson accused Putin of “drifting in an increasingly totalitarian direction.”

There is no doubt that Ms. Andersson’s accusation is well founded. Putin has no qualms about using his government’s every means to solidify his power and to make life increasingly difficult for the opposition. It is more than fair to accuse the Russian Duma of being a “simulation of parliament” in a “fake democracy.” 

That said, the observer of how Sweden went from a never-NATO country to handing in its membership application is struck by how precisely those epithets would work in Stockholm as well. One of the first to notice is Kajsa Ekman, editorial writer for the daily Expressen. In a scathing review of the NATO accession process, she explains that in 2018, the Swedish people elected a parliament that was solidly opposed to NATO membership. The biggest party, the social democrats (in government since 2014), stuck to its decades-old doctrine of military neutrality.

According to Ekman, the third largest party, the Swedish Democrats, was “not going to allow membership” of NATO without first seeking the approval of the Swedish people “in a referendum.” 

Even after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the Swedish government maintained an openly skeptical attitude to NATO. Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist remained opposed to a NATO membership until April 11th, and Prime Minister Andersson said as recently as early March that a Swedish NATO membership would “further destabilize the situation in Europe.”

Then, the Swedish Democrats started shifting in favor of NATO membership. Since they belonged to the center-right opposition bloc, the governing Social Democrats risked being overrun by a pro-NATO majority in parliament. Scrambling to catch up, by the end of March their chairwoman, Prime Minister Andersson, did not rule out NATO accession

Six weeks later, the government she leads handed over a formal application to Secretary General Stoltenberg.

In the process, Ms. Andersson steamrolled her own party and its deeply rooted commitment to military neutrality. The parliament received the same treatment: its only debate over NATO membership happened on May 16th, two days before the application was handed in.

Just like the Russian Duma

This debate would be the only point during the NATO application process where anything resembling the voice of the people would be heard. To make sure that voice did not run amok with democratic hubris, she made sure that the debate was preceded by a formal decision by her cabinet to apply to NATO. She also arranged for a joint press conference with Mr. Ulf Kristersson, leader of the parliamentary center-right opposition alliance, where the two outdid one another in praising NATO accession. 

Once these two events had taken place, Ms. Andersson had nothing to fear from allowing the parliament to hold its debate. With the precision of a Duma’esque dog-and-pony show, the parliament followed a carefully laid out script: of the eight participants—one from each party—six made virtually indistinguishable statements favoring NATO accession. 

The only proponent who made a meaningful contribution was Mr. Åkesson, chairman of the Swedish Democrats. In his brief appearance, he echoed my point that in order to meet NATO defense budget mandates, the parliament would have to give special constitutional status to defense appropriations. 

Of the two opposing views, only the one from the left party came across as genuine. Referencing the war in Ukraine, Nooshi Dadgostar, the party’s chairwoman, explained that it was urgent to help Ukraine—but not to apply for NATO membership. She noted that in a matter of weeks, the prime minister and her cabinet had

decided to abandon 200 years of non-alliance policy and military self determination. We are the one country in the world who has been able to protect its people against war the longest. 

Pointing to the complete lack of conversation about alternatives to NATO membership, Ms. Dadgostar went on to highlight the democratic illegitimacy of the process itself:

The fact that voters themselves are not going to be able to voice their opinion on this pivotal issue in either an election or a referendum, is deeply problematic. It undermines the legitimacy of the decision [to apply], and it cannot be motivated from a security policy viewpoint. Our military, as well as other experts, have clearly stated as much. It would have been just fine [with them] to wait with a NATO decision until October.

One of Ms. Dadgostar’s main points referred to the fact that some NATO members have nuclear weapons. Both the Swedish government and the general public have been strongly opposed to nuclear weapons ever since World War II. However, as a member of NATO, all Sweden can do is to declare its opposition; since NATO members never comment on whether their ships or aircraft are equipped with nuclear warheads, a unilateral anti-nuclear declaration is of no consequence.

It is very noteworthy that the Swedish people have not been given a say in this de facto termination of their country’s status as a nuclear-weapons free zone.

Ms. Dadgostar also noted how Turkish President Erdogan is “blackmailing” Sweden over its membership application. Turkey has made clear that it is going to block both Nordic countries from joining NATO, for two reasons. The first is the weapons embargo that the United States and other western countries imposed on Turkey after they chose to buy the Russian S400 air defense system over alternatives from its NATO allies.

The second reason is the conflict between the Turkish government and the country’s Kurdish minority. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey and, among others, the United States and the European Union. Sweden, on the other hand, has long been a safe haven for PKK members. 

In order to move on the Swedish and Finnish NATO applications, President Erdogan’s government wants 17 PKK members, as well as 16 members of ancillary Kurdish organizations, extradited to Ankara. 

It hardly helps the issue that the Turkish government accuses Sweden of providing weapons to the PKK.

The Turkish trap, which will force the Swedish government into humiliating concessions to Ankara, is in part a separate problem from the non-democratic nature of the NATO application itself. However, the two are tied together insofar as transparency is concerned: if the Swedish government had engaged the parliament and the public in a vigorous, non-prejudiced debate over NATO accession, problems such as the possibility of Turkish blackmail would have been properly vetted. 

As things are now, the lack of democratic involvement has become a ball chain around Prime Minister Andersson’s wrist. It remains to be seen how she will get out of it, if she can. 

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.