Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson arrives for the second day of a European Union (EU) summit at the EU Headquarters, in Brussels on March 25, 2022.

Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson arrives for the second day of a European Union (EU) summit at the EU Headquarters, in Brussels on March 25, 2022. AFP via Getty Images / LUDOVIC MARIN

Sweden, Finland Gave Up Neutrality a Long Time Ago

Their collective-defense rights as EU members suggest a way forward for Ukraine.

Sweden and Finland are, countless reporters and commentators tell us, about to give up their neutrality when they submit membership applications to NATO next month. One part of this statement is correct: the two neighbors and geopolitical sisters are expected to apply for NATO membership in mid-May. But they’re not neutral. The two countries relinquished their neutrality when they joined the European Union in the 1990s. Being neutral, in fact, has little to do with being a member of NATO. That’s important to consider when discussing Ukraine’s eventual future.

“Neutral Finns and Swedes reconsider idea of NATO membership,” the Associated Press reported on March 3. Virtually every news outlet has disseminated similar stories, and there’s reason for the enormous interest in the two countries. The past few weeks have triggered fundamental changes in the countries’ relationship with NATO. For as long as I can remember—and I’m a child of Cold-War Sweden—Sweden has proudly remained outside NATO.As children, we all learned Sweden’s posture by heart: “Alliance non-alignment in peacetime aimed at neutrality in war.” Over the years, public opinion has sometimes moved towards more support of NATO membership, and sometimes it has declined, but it has never remained consistently above 50 percent. And even if public opinion had climbed past the halfway mark and cruised there, the often-governing Social Democrats—longstanding NATO skeptics—always had a card up their sleeve. Joining the alliance would only be possible if Finland were to join at the same time, they said. And in Finland, support for joining the NATO remained firmly around 20 to 25 percent.

Then, of course, came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Finland’s support for NATO membership skyrocketed past 60-percent, and support in Sweden rose too. Sweden’s center-right opposition parties all said they wanted the country to apply for membership. The governing Social Democrats decided to kick the can down the road and said they’d appoint a commission to study the matter. But in Finland, the center-left government took decisive action. Prime Minister Sanna Marin commissioned a government report on the pros and cons of joining the alliance, which the government submitted to Parliament on April 13. The report saw mostly advantages in joining NATO, noting, for example, that “should Finland and Sweden become Nato members, the threshold for using military force in the Baltic Sea region would rise, which would enhance the stability of the region in the long term.” Surveying the parliament’s 200 members, national broadcaster YLE reported that 112 supported a NATO bid while only 12 were opposed it. (33 were undecided and 43 did not respond.) The Swedish government seems to have realized that it would be utterly foolish to sit out a unique opportunity to join NATO swiftly, with minimal trouble, and with Finland providing coverage. It announced that its review would be concluded by May 13 rather than a previously announced later date. It matters, too, that 47 percent of Swedes support joining NATO—and that 59 percent support the move if Finland joins too. The governments have also announced that President Sauli Niinistö of Finland will visit Sweden on May 17 and 18. A NATO announcement is imminent.

This has prompted the flurry of media reports about the two countries discarding their neutrality. News klaxon! It has been 27 years since Sweden and Finland were last neutral—that is, since they joined the EU. “If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power,” states Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union. In fact, the EU’s mutual-defense clause is as strong NATO’s famous Article 5, in which NATO member states agree to “assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.”

In 1995, Sweden and Finland finally made the leap after having remained outside, together, for many years. In the case of Finland, the long wait was necessitated partly by its post-World War II “friendship treaty” with the Soviet Union. And in the case of Sweden, the country wanted to proudly chart its own course outside any alliances. It wanted to be neutral.

Yes, the EU would hardly be in a position to militarily avenge an armed attack against one of its member states. But Article 42.7 means its members are not neutral, even though Ireland likes to present itself as such and even though media and commentators like to smack the neutrality label on Sweden and Finland (and Austria). That matters a great deal, and not just concerning Sweden and Finland. Consider Ukraine. In recent weeks, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has suggested he’s willing to forgo NATO membership for Ukraine. This represents an offer to Russia in a potential peace agreement and a recognition of the reality that a NATO membership bid may not be successful.

But remaining outside NATO would not leave Ukraine stranded. The country has a viable chance of entering the EU, albeit not in the near future. That would give it 27 countries committed to coming to its aid. And Ukraine could form a mutual-assistance community with other neighbors. Consider Georgia and Moldova. 

There are still neutral countries in the world. Switzerland only joined the United Nations in 2002 and is, of course, a member of neither the EU nor NATO. But Sweden and Finland are not neutral. And unlike Finland after World War II, Ukraine won’t face enforced neutrality whenever this war ends—because Russia is not in a position to block an EU membership bid. Words matter.

Elisabeth Braw is a Senior Fellow at AEI, specializing in defense against gray-zone aggression. She previously directed the Modern Deterrence program at the Royal United Services Institute. She is the author of The Defender's Dilemma Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression (AEI, 2021).