Sweden weighs up bringing emotional end to 200 years of neutrality

Joining Nato is ‘giving away our crown jewels – our influence and standing in the world’

In the cemetery of Stockholm’s Adolf Fredrik church, Pierre Schori stands impassively at the grave of his former boss and friend Olof Palme.

As Swedish prime minister, Palme shaped his homeland’s cold war identity as a human rights superpower that was non-aligned on principle and dogged on nuclear disarmament.

If the legendary Social Democrat leader hadn’t been shot dead nearby in 1986, then Sweden’s looming decision to join Nato might well have killed him.

“We are giving away our crown jewels: our influence and standing in the world,” says Schori, a former aide and keeper of the flame in the Olof Palme International Centre.

The Social Democrats have tried to avoid this issue for years and now they have had to eat some of their hard, clear positions

The 83-year-old’s sense of mourning is palpable. As early as next week, Sweden and neighbouring Finland are expected to send letters of application to join Nato, the transatlantic defence alliance.

For Finland it is a bold, sober and unsentimental move that ends decades of carefully calibrated neutrality. With a shrug, Finnish officials say Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a new security risk and forced them to reinforce their 1,300km shared border as Nato’s new outer wall.

For Sweden, though, this rendezvous with reality is even bigger: an abrupt and emotional end to a national narrative of peace, non-alignment and two centuries of neutrality, dating back to the Napoleonic era.

The wake

If Russia’s February 24th attack was the death of that dream, yesterday was the wake. At 11am in central Stockholm, 10 grim-faced politicians from all of Sweden’s political parties followed foreign minister Ann Linde into a sombre news briefing.

The mourning line was clear: we have been secure in the past but Sweden must change if we want to be secure in the future. Afterwards, defence minister Peter Hultqvist said Europe’s new situation requires new, uncomfortable thinking.

“From my perspective Swedish military non-alignment was a way to balance and reduce risk for conflict and tensions,” he told The Irish Times. “The Russians have shown how brutal and evil they are . . . and we have to draw our conclusions.”

Doing that will not be easy. Huge opposition remains within his ruling Social Democrats, both at the proposed change and how, as one Stockholm party member said, it has been “bulldozed through”.

All eyes turn now to a party board meeting on Sunday, where regional leaders and party sections – for women, young people and Christians – will air their frustration and opposition. But senior party figures are determined to put this historic policy U-turn behind them quickly, long before autumn elections.

'I'm just not sure if we're playing Putin's game by getting into Nato, or staying out'

Joining Nato leaves Sweden’s main opposition party, the conservative-liberal Moderates, with one stick less to beat the Social Democrats – not that they are complaining.

Long-term supporters of Nato membership, Moderates foreign policy spokesman Hans Wallmark says the challenge for his party now is to remain “good winners not bad winners”.

Even if the Social Democrats back Nato membership on Sunday, he warns it is not yet a given that they will all warm to the idea.

“The Social Democrats have tried to avoid this issue for years and now they have had to eat some of their hard, clear positions,” he told The Irish Times. “For them this is like converting from one religion to another. It deserves respect but it will take time.”

Growing nuclear risk

With decision time looming, some 40 mostly older people have gathered in central Stockholm to hear presentations on fears of a growing nuclear risk, in particular Nato’s first-strike policy, which will also become Sweden’s.

“Given the role of Nato expansion in Russian threat perceptions, I do not think that Swedish and Finnish membership of Nato are particularly helpful for reducing tensions,” says Dr Tytti Erästö, senior researcher in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation at the Sweden International Peace Institute (Sipri).

While the accession debate’s brisk pace raises questions of democratic legitimacy, security analyst Magnus Christiansson says it is less about the end of Swedish neutrality than the shattering of an obstinate myth.

Ostensibly neutral for two centuries, Sweden co-operated with both sides, at different times, in the second World War while its cold war neutrality was of the armed variety, with close if discreet ties to Nato.

“There has always been pragmatism here on this issue, you might even say hypocrisy,” says Prof Christiansson, associate professor in war studies at the Swedish Defence University.

Breaking point

Unlike Finland, Sweden has no recent, direct memory of war with Russia, so the invasion of Ukraine has pushed its pragmatism beyond breaking point.

Two months ago, Swedish prime minister Magdalena Andersson said joining Nato would further destabilise the region. It was only after long meetings with Finnish officials that she and her officials realised that Stockholm had a choice: join Helsinki in applying, or take a chance in splendid security isolation. The heated neutrality debate has been so short, however, that there is little debate over what kind of Nato member Sweden wants to be.

“Bring your popcorn, we are going to have our Nato debate after our membership,” says Prof Christiansson. “As a first step, our armed forces headquarters will have to hang up maps that don’t just cover Swedish territory.”

Political scientist Marie Demker agrees that Sweden’s Nato flirtation is not a long-term security decision but a short-term “morally defensible choice” after Helsinki’s decision tipped the Nordic norm away from non-alignment.

“Not to seek membership at the moment involves a morally contested choice because it is a distance from the norm and . . . a departure from common values,” says Prof Demker of Gothenburg University. “Present conditions are not the best for foreign policy decision-making that can be assumed to satisfy our national security interests in the long term.”

Sitting in Stockholm’s old town, watching the procession of ministers leave Friday’s security report presentation, locals in a cafe are torn about the country’s road ahead.

“Swedish people don’t think, they react, they’re always afraid of not being in the popular group,” says Lina, a 26-year-old student. “I’m just not sure if we’re playing Putin’s game by getting into Nato, or staying out.”

Illusion

For 60-something Nils, who says he is cautiously in favour of joining Nato, Swedes were able to live under the illusion they were free and neutral only because of their neighbours’ military alignment. February 24th changed all that, he thinks.

“This political theatre is because Swedes have had such a long period of peace and struggle to see the world as it is, not how they wish it was,” he says.

Schori doesn’t like to linger as we walk past the pavement memorial that marks where Palme was gunned down 36 years ago.

The prospect of what is to come – the death of Sweden’s non-alignment dream, something as noble to him as EU membership was to British Remainers – is waking Schori up at night.

“My wife is furious with me and says I’m obsessed,” he says. “I tell her: the world will not disappear over this, but it will get more dangerous.”

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