Sweden Swaying Between Neutrality & Nato: Security Pressures & New Controversies

Sweden - Analysis - Sweden - 19 Dec 2015
An analysis about the newest debate on the relationship between Sweden and the North Atlantic Alliance. by Maciej Wilga
To stay outside an alliance and to be a neutral and passive participant in all political events has been a guiding principle for the Swedish state for a long time. This political principle in Sweden’s history seems to get “under fire” now. The question of becoming a member in the North Atlantic Defence Alliance NATO came up to the surface of the political agenda.

As defined by the Hague Convention in the year 1907, rules concerning the neutrality of states divide them in two groups, states with a permanent neutrality status such as Switzerland (recognised as such in 1815) and Belgium (1831) and those with non-permanent. Sweden’s neutrality has been less clear.

On the other hand, NATO has clearly been a military alliance born at the beginning of the Cold War to counter-balance the Warsaw Pact and the Russian-born ideological imperialism. While Sweden, also neutral before and during WWII, remained in the democratic Western political block, it did not join NATO after the end of WWII. It has also remained so after the end of the Cold War. Now, however, the Swedish neutrality is questioned more than ever.

Sweden’s neutrality strained? Recent facts on the NATO-Sweden relationship

NATO has 42 formalised partnerships with states. Being active in the “Partnership for Peace” framework since 1994, Sweden is one of them. Sweden also participates in the “Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council” established in 1997 and has its representation in Brussels where the NATO headquarter is located. From the Swedish perspective, however, the country’s contribution aims mainly at fostering international crisis management and at creating a stable European security order.

Since the NATO summit in Wales in September 2014, Sweden - together with Finland - forms part of the “Enhanced Opportunity Programme”, where five privileged countries have the possibility to deepen their military ties with NATO individually or bilaterally. Moreover, Sweden signed the so called “Host Nation Support” agreement, with which NATO can quickly be allowed to use the Swedish territory for a number of military activities.

In September 2014, Sweden also signed an agreement on military cooperation with NATO member Poland. In addition, as the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported, the Swedish government has allegedly been involved in secret negotiations with NATO concerning a new elite NATO-linked force considered for deployment in the Baltic states in case of military aggression. The newspaper stated, it had seen a secret memorandum written earlier by the Swedish attaché in London, Mats Danielsson, on the Swedish participation in the force. While no political decision has been taken, there seems to be a dialogue on the topic between NATO and Sweden.

It is obvious that Sweden has become more active in their cooperation with NATO than ever before, which is underlined by even more facts. For instance, in October 2013, the neutral Sweden participated in the NATO military manoeuvre “Steadfast Jazz” for the first time. As a non-NATO member, the country joined the NATO military exercises with about 6000 troops involved. The NATO forces simulated a fictive defence scenario of an attack on the NATO territories in Southern Sweden, Poland and the Baltic region. As a logical follow-up of Sweden joining the NATO Partnership for Peace scheme, these exercises sent a strong signal concerning the Swedish military involvement in NATO, although formally staying outside without membership status.

In March 2013, staff officers from Azerbaijan were trained by NATO on Swedish territory. The NATO alliance also planned to practice the deployment of its Rapid Response Forces from Swedish territory to support its partners in case of an attack.

Despite the enhanced Swedish participation in all NATO military activities, the then country’s Minister for Defence, Karin Enström from the centre-right, liberal-conservative party Moderaterna assured that Sweden would not be forced to provide troops in a real war scenario. Sweden would be in full control of its troops remaining neutral, be it in the NATO Response Forces or other military operations.

In January 2014, the neutral Finland expressed an interest in strengthening its military and defence ties with Sweden. At a conference in presence of King Carl Gustaf of Sweden, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö announced his intention to seek closer cooperation with Sweden in defence matters as two independent and alliance free neutral states, although Sweden came closer to NATO. It was underlined at this point that both countries consider NATO membership out of question, although – as it was added – the matter may change at some point in the future, depending on the given security situation.

Shortly afterwards, the Finnish initiative led Enström and her Finish counterpart Carl Haglund to issue a communiqué expressing their intentions to deepen cooperation in defence matters, such as SWENEX manoeuvres, international crisis management and the “Nordic Battle Groups”, and – most importantly – regarding the cooperation within the NATO Response Forces, which Sweden joined in 2013.

Presumably in the wake of the evolving Ukraine crisis following the ousting of Ukrainian President Yanukovych from power, the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia and the entering of American troops into NATO member Poland in April 2014, the security situation changed in the region. That put more pressure on the neutral Sweden.

Consequently, the Swedish government presented political plans to reinforce the country’s defence. A government report announced that Sweden would improve its existing submarine fleet. It would introduce a new air force brigade and reinforce the Nordic defence cooperation with neighbouring countries, though without NATO involvement. Despite political differences, both largest party blocks agreed in principle on the plans. The then Danish NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen argued in this context that although Sweden was not a NATO member, its plans to invest more into defence corresponded well with NATO plans.

In August 2014, Sweden sealed an agreement with the alliance on carrying through more NATO exercises on Swedish soil, such as the ‘Steadfast Jazz’ manoeuvres from 2013. These manoeuvres went little beyond the NATO Partnership for Peace programme, of which Sweden is a member. Given the new agreement, Sweden again came one step closer to NATO policies and structures.

With all the agreements and treaty based obligations – for instance the intensive defence cooperation with Finland, which has also been interested in hosting the NATO Rapid Reaction Forces, or solidarity agreements with Baltic countries, which are NATO members – Sweden has moved very close to the NATO article 5 solidarity clause.

The Sweden-NATO agreements fit and complete the larger NATO policies such as the permanent 4000 troops Rapid Reaction Forces created for the Eastern European region. As the Secretary General Rasmussen said, the permanent Eastern NATO flank facilities shall prevent further Russian aggression.

Nevertheless, the Swedish discourse has constantly been the same. As the Swedish Minister for Defence expressed it, NATO would not be able to deploy its forces in the country against the will of the Swedish people. Sweden has a de facto sovereignty on the matter. Equally, as it looks, still only one in three Swedes would favour a full NATO membership.

A few months later, security questions became again important due to an allegedly spotted Russian (or another foreign?) submarine near Stockholm. The incident happened in October 2014. Shortly after, the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallström, travelled to Estonia and Latvia to show Sweden’s solidarity with the Eastern European countries.

With heightening tensions with Russia, a new Minister for Foreign Affairs, and given the newly defined Swedish foreign policy objectives, military and defence activities were strengthened. In February 2015, Sweden signed agreements for joint military war plans with Finland. Both countries declared that in case of war, they would fight shoulder by shoulder. They strengthened cooperation in the area of defence (cosmopublic report, January 2014). Both agreements were signed outside NATO framework, as the two countries share the same attitudes towards neutrality, although the support for NATO has been gradually growing on the Swedish side.

A similar agreement was signed with Denmark in order, as the new Swedish Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist argued, to foster a “closer military Nordic cooperation (…)”. Again, this should operate within the existing Nordic defence cooperation called “Nordefco”, thus outside NATO, although Denmark is a NATO member.

A few months later, the question about Sweden and NATO came back on the agenda. This time it was more about the actual NATO membership than just about military or security activities linked to the alliance. A Swedish membership made it to the political agenda of a number of Swedish political parties. Some of them expressed their opinions as to the NATO membership question in September and November 2015 (see below). That was probably triggered by such incidents as the presence of the allegedly Russian submarine in the Swedish waters nearby Stockholm, or the annexation of Crimea by Russia, or by and large because of Russia’s flexed muscles.

As the new NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently said, Sweden is now as close to NATO as it is possible without being a fully fledged member. The missing (and probably decisive) element is Art. 5 of the NATO Treaty, which does not apply for Sweden. That means that there is no guarantee that NATO would act in case Sweden is attacked. During his visit last month, Stoltenberg stressed at a recent press conference with the Nordic defence ministers that Sweden can come even closer to NATO, i.e. become member. However, Hultqvist did not see any necessity, or need, that Sweden should become a full NATO member. Sweden wants to improve, update and reinforce its military capabilities, and NATO helps a lot in this respect. However, the country wants to reach such objectives – as decided by the Swedish parliament – as a neutral and alliance-free state.

Although, traditionally, Swedish governments have been against NATO membership, the popular support seems to slowly but continuously be growing. Now, about 41 percent of all asked Swedes expressed their support for NATO membership with 10 percent less for remaining outside the Atlantic organisation. Do all these facts suggest that Sweden might soon become the next NATO member?

Party-political repositioning on the NATO question

Though resistant on the question in the past, the Centre Party and the Christian Democrats signalled in September this year that they would reconsider the Swedish NATO membership. The issue has earlier been taken up by the centre-right, liberal-conservative Moderaterna, and also by the liberal Folkpartiet.

Already in her first party talk, the new leader of Moderaterna, Anna Kinberg Batra, mentioned NATO membership as an option for Sweden. With the Centre Party and the Christian Democrats flirting with the yes-side in the debate as well, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of the Social Democrats swiftly replied and informed the Swedish public that NATO membership is out of question, not on the agenda and, according to an agreement with three Alliance parties, not to debate. Sweden would remain neutral.

Nevertheless, both the Centre Party and the Christian Democrats decided to examine anew their political positions at their respective conventions in autumn. If the delegates in both parties decided in favour of NATO membership, the entire political centre right spectrum in Sweden would be on the yes-side. With that happening, the debate on NATO membership would become more intensive and could even make it to the agenda in the next election to the Swedish parliament.

Changing position of the two parties would complete and unify the alliance parties on the issue, thereby mounting the pressure on the Swedish government. At the end, however, Sweden might need an overall acceptance, one that cuts through all political parties. Thus, as long as the Social Democrats are against NATO membership, there could be no real change in the matter.

Announcing that the two parties wanted to vote in their assemblies on the NATO question, the agreement between the government parties and the Alliance parties has become a subject of interpretation. While the Centre Party, Moderaterna and the Christian Democrats interpreted the agreement as giving the possibility to re-examine the NATO membership conditions when the time was ready, the government parties (Social Democrats and Greens) interpreted the agreement that the NATO membership question does not need re-examination. As Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven repeated, ”one can just read the agreement text to see that NATO and the Swedish neutrality are not to be questioned”.

Be it as it may, increased security pressures due to Russia (e.g. Crimea annexation) as well as a different look at neutrality in general (in particular given a more globalised world), became reasons to reflect anew on the NATO membership for the Centre Party and the Christian Democrats. Possible for the parties could also be to approach the NATO membership together with Finland.

Although in the past, Annie Lööf – the leader of the Centre Party – has been in doubt about Swedish NATO membership, she wanted to reflect on the conditions that influence the issue. At the end of September, the social liberal Centerpartiet debated the question at its convention. After a lively debate, the delegates decided for the NATO membership of Sweden with 273 for and 157 votes against. Following that democratic decision, the party leadership demanded that Sweden starts a procedure of becoming a NATO member, together with Finland. By doing so, the party leaders argued, once both countries are NATO members, the Nordic voice will directly count at the NATO negotiating and decision tables.

Similarly, the Christian Democrats for their part also decided for a Swedish NATO membership. At its party gathering, on Friday 9 November 2015, the party members changed the political position on the NATO question. With that all, the Alliance parties became united on the NATO question, and so may the Swedish foreign policy change.

A study conducted in September 2015 found out that there is now a cumulated majority for the NATO membership among the Swedish political parties. The question asked in the study was “Do you think Sweden should become a member of NATO?”. The opinion poll has been undertaken almost in parallel with the U-turn of the Centre Party and the Christian Democrats.

While the figures for the Green Party voters were about 61 percent against and 27 for NATO membership, the Social Democrats has constantly been against membership with about 52 percent against and 30 percent in favour. The No-side was also accompanied by Left Party’s 85 percent.

As the study revealed, the alliance parties are now united on the question. Whereas the Moderaterna dispose of 60 percent of yes votes with 23 percent against, the liberal Folkpartiet supports the NATO membership with 61 percent votes with 22 percent opposing. The Centre Party on its part reached 66 percent of the yes votes with 19 percent against. And the Christian Democrats got 61 percent for NATO (31 against). The nationalist Sweden Democrats would vote with 54 percent against the NATO alliance, although a number of their party members are not categorically opposed to the idea. As it seems now, there is a clear cleavage on the question and the Swedes will eventually have to decide.

A growing support among the Swedish people combined with the increasing security pressures might eventually change the game in Sweden. In a current opinion poll, 41 percent asked were in favour of membership in the NATO alliance. This is 10 percent more compared with May 2014. In 2013, only 29 percent were for NATO and 17 percent in 2012. Although, it is still far away from the 50 percent mark, the part of Swedish population being for the NATO membership is growing.

Europe and Sweden: Security situation in November 2015 and afterwards

What happened in France and across Europe in November only intensified the security pressures, Sweden included. On Friday, the 13th November, the Stade de France in Paris and the football match between France and Germany was the objective of a terrorist attack, followed by a number other terrorist actions in the city centre with more than 100 dead and about the same number of injured.

Speaking of war, the French President François Hollande announced a state of emergency. Shortly after, the European capital, Brussels, experienced a massive police operation in Molenbeek. As a follow-up from Stade de France, the German city of Hannover was affected by a bomb threat which led to the cancellation of the football game Germany against the Netherlands. Just a day later, on Wednesday 18 November, Paris was again terrorised in Saint Denis, followed by attack plans in the financial district of Paris.

Sweden has not been isolated from the danger. There was a terror-linked alarm in the Swedish riksdag. Facing growing pressures with the refugee crisis deteriorating, Sweden introduced temporary border controls. In what was thought to be a reaction to the Paris terror attacks, local governments of the regional headquarters of Sweden’s ruling coalition parties, the Social Democrats and the Greens, were vandalised. Later, the terminal 3 of the biggest Scandinavian airport Kastrup in Copenhagen had to be evacuated due to potential luggage bomb.
All these events caused Sweden to raise the security level, the highest experienced in Sweden in the last decades, i.e. to 4 on a scale from 1 to 5. The Security Police SÄPO claimed that there was a concrete threat in Sweden.

With no direct or concrete consequences to NATO, France called upon all the EU Member States, thus Sweden included, to provide help in the fight against the terrorism of the so called Islamic State. Voices about the idea of a European Army were heard again when France called upon the Art. 42 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty to engage other EU Member States in the fight against terrorism. Solidarity article 5 of the NATO agreement has not been called though.

Concluding remarks

While the jury is still out on the question whether Sweden eventually becomes a member of the North Atlantic Alliance, such a decision will certainly depend on a number of factors, a number of which can be categorised as security threats. If the latter are growing, the pressure to go for a yes might mount. If stable or diminishing, Swedish neutrality will be a preferred option as it has been hitherto.

Although Sweden has recently experienced a number of growing insecurities and the NATO membership has indeed been discussed in the country more intensive in the recent months, it still remains officially neutral. It remains to be seen what happens in the future, given in particular the fact that Swedes are getting less and less opposed to the idea of becoming a member in the NATO alliance.

On the other hand, although the behaviour of Russia has made the security pressures mount,
Sweden’s decision to stay neutral seems in Russia’s interests. As long as Sweden stays neutral, Russia will not be alarmed. By the same token, Sweden might only stay neutral as long as Russia will not get more aggressive in the Nordic part of Europe, as argued Bruce Acker, the American defence attaché in Sweden (2007–2011).

It seems that it is a double-edged sword swaying to one or another side depending on how both actors behave. Similar is the argument voiced by the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven when he said in May this year that it was good for Sweden to function as alliance free territory, which is in the interest of Russia. However, it should be mentioned at this point, the proclaimed Swedish solidarity with the Baltic countries that historically are more in Russia’s sphere of influence, de facto alleviates Sweden’s neutrality in practice.

At the end, as Annie Lööf, the leader of the Centre Party newly put it, a phoney Swedish neutrality or only a verbalised NATO alliance freedom might eventually led to less security for Sweden than an authentic and truthful NATO membership. It thus remains to be seen how the politics and the Swedes will behave in the future. The battle of arguments goes on and as for now, the jury is still out.


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