On a recent trip to Sweden to mark the start of the country’s six-month presidency of the European Union, I was asked six times about Ireland’s position on defence.
The invasion of Ukraine caused a dramatic shift in attitudes about defence in Scandinavia, leading to Sweden and Finland applying to join Nato and Denmark choosing by referendum to end its opt-out from EU co-operation on defence. People in Stockholm were curious about whether the Irish public is also debating the issue.
My response was that the issue is complex and the polling ambiguous, but that the surveys indicate Nato membership is divisive and that there is a strong attachment to neutrality. My attempts to explain the historical context going back to independence and the world wars tended to end with me trailing off, as I noticed my audience’s attention start to wander.
The discussions were an opportunity to learn more about the shift in attitudes in Sweden, which had a neutrality policy dating back to the early 19th century that endured throughout the second World War.
Sweden began to be involved in common EU defence projects after joining the union in 1995, and its non-alignment definitively ended with the decision to apply for Nato membership last year, in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
Its swing in public opinion in favour of joining Nato “will be the subject of many theses”, one senior government official said. Nevertheless, Sweden’s defence minister Pål Jonson had a go at explaining it to me.
A turning point was a proposal by the Russian government on December 17th, 2021. At the time, Moscow had amassed tanks and troops on Ukraine’s border but was denying it planned to invade. It proposed a legally binding treaty that would bar any more countries from joining Nato.
“I think that was the wake-up call,” Jonson said. “We have heard Russia before complaining about Sweden and Finland [shouldn’t] join Nato. But presenting a legally binding treaty that would make us not a sovereign nation? That did not go down well in Stockholm, I can assure you.”
The invasion weeks later then demonstrated that Nato would only defend its member states.
France and Germany blocked Ukraine’s attempt to join the alliance in 2008. But Ukraine, like Sweden and Ireland, was part of Nato’s bilateral co-operation programme Partnership for Peace. This was not enough.
“Nato supports its partners. But it defends its allies,” Jonson said. “If you are very dependent on the US military presence in Europe ... If you want Article 5 and Nato’s common defence planning [an attack against one Nato member is considered an attack against them all], then you better the join the alliance.”
Worries about Russian retaliation for joining Nato had long been a reason for caution in Sweden. The invasion of Ukraine removed that as a consideration, by revealing that Moscow was willing to take aggressive steps irrespective of the actions of other countries.
Russia was simultaneously shown to be “not as militarily potent as many assumed” but at the same time “more dangerous”, because “Russia takes a lot of political and military risks”, Jonson continued. “That’s something we have to take into consideration.”
All in all the invasion “has given rise to the need for a greater geopolitical realism of the EU”.
There was a political factor too. Sweden’s centre-left Social Democrats had long opposed Nato membership. Faced with a contrary public opinion swing and an election due in September 2022, they chose to resolve the issue quickly to avoid it becoming a drawn-out feature of the campaign.
In lock-step with their Finnish sister party, the Social Democrats announced a U-turn to back Nato membership in May, creating a parliamentary consensus in favour of joining the alliance.
Meanwhile, the supreme commander of the Swedish armed forces Micael Bydén was also making the case for joining on strategic grounds. “It was the right thing to do from a military strategic point of view, something I made clear in my military advice to the government during the spring,” he said.
A Swedish journalist also suggested a chance cultural factor that might have been at work.
The secretary general of Nato is Jens Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway from the centre-left Norwegian Labour Party.
He’s a politician in the “sensible Scandinavian social democrat” mould: grey and understated in a way that for Swedes is reassuringly familiar.
If he had been a “hawkish Slovakian” or “a cigar-chomping Texan in a cowboy hat”, the journalist said, then Nato might have been a harder sell.