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Sweden and Finland have applied to join NATO, ending decades of neutrality and non-alignment. Both countries say Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and domestic re-appraisals of their security environment, has prompted them to seek to formally join the Euro-Atlantic security alliance.

What is the process for joining?

NATO has an ‘open door’ policy and any European country is eligible to join NATO. The only requirement for any applicant is that they are in a position to further the principles of the founding Washington Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.

Since 1999 aspiring members have used individually tailored Membership Action Plans to prepare for membership and to make any required political, legal, military or security reforms.

All 30 members of NATO have to unanimously agree to invite an aspiring country to join. This then starts the accession process, which involves each member of the Alliance signing and ratifying the Accession Protocol. The ratification process is in accordance with each member’s national procedures. Only once the ratification process is complete can the applicant country formally join the Alliance.

When will Sweden and Finland join?

Sweden and Finland submitted simultaneous applications to join NATO on 18 May 2022. It is possible that NATO allies will agree at the forthcoming summit in Madrid (29-30 June 2022) to begin accession talks with one or both countries. However, NATO member Turkey has indicated its opposition to their membership, citing Sweden and Finland’s support for Kurdish separatist groups. It is therefore unclear if or when they will join. Finland’s Prime Minister, Sanna Martin, has urged a quick resolution to their differences, warning “If we don’t solve these issues before (the) Madrid (Summit), there is a risk that the situation will freeze. We don’t know for how long but it might freeze for a while.”

How has Russia responded?

Russia has long opposed the expansion of NATO. However, President Putin has indicated he sees no threat to Russia if Sweden and Finland join the Alliance. He has said Russia will respond if NATO begins to establish military infrastructure in either of the two nations. Russia has an 830-mile border with Finland.

Both countries are concerned Russia may take provocative or retaliatory measures towards them in the period before they join the Alliance. NATO allies are providing what Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has called “substantial security assurances” to Sweden. This is likely to take the form of an increased presence in the region, training exercises and high-profile visits.

The UK has explicitly said it will support either country if attacked.

NATO expansion

NATO has seen several periods of expansion. The Republic of North Macedonia became the 30th member in 2020. Currently only Bosnia and Herzegovina is participating in the formal Membership Action Plan (MAP). Georgia and Ukraine have expressed a desire to join, but neither has formally begun the process.

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