How Canada helped lead Sweden and Finland into NATO

Three summers ago, Finnish Foreign Affairs Minister Pekka Haavisto was in Toronto for a conference on reform in Ukraine that was attended by leading figures from nations around the globe. Haavisto liked Toronto; he enjoyed the chance to hear from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the conference and get to know Justin Trudeau’s government a little better.

What Haavisto didn’t know then was that Canada and Ukraine would turn out to be a big part of his job in 2022, and that one of this minister’s legacy achievements may be helping lead his country into NATO — with some strategic assistance from his Canadian counterpart, Mélanie Joly.

Haavisto, a leading member of the Green League party, has run twice for president in Finland. Not only was he the first openly gay candidate in the country’s history, but he was also the first man to seek that job who opted for non-military service in Finland’s compulsory conscription program.

“I’m a member of a Green Party and the Greens are a very peace-loving people, anti-military people in that sense, and our political party has never been in favour of NATO,” Haavisto said in a phone interview this week.

Everything changed on Feb. 24, though, when Russia invaded Ukraine. For some politicians, that has become a standard line in their foreign affairs speeches. For Haavisto, it’s more than a line. It is deeply, professionally and personally true.

“The morning of the 24th, it felt like a shock. It felt like, ‘Aha, it’s our generation. We are in a war again,’” he said. “It’s that feeling that you are waking up in a totally different world.”

Haavisto wasn’t the only Finn to feel this way. Finland’s people are only too aware of how close Russia is — the two countries share a 1,340-kilometre border and, back in the pre-invasion days, about seven million Finns and Russians travelled back and forth across that border each year.

Before Russia’s hostile march into Ukraine, a vast majority of Finns, including the foreign affairs minister, were not keen to join NATO. Neutrality seemed a preferable approach. A poll a month before the invasion showed only 28 per cent public support for the NATO option, with 42 per cent opposed. By early March, that figure was up to 48 per cent and it’s only been climbing since.

In mid-May, Prime Minister Sanna Marin was ready to announce that Finland “must apply for NATO membership without delay.”

Here in Canada, that didn’t come as a surprise. Quietly, more than a month earlier, Joly had dropped into Helsinki and had dinner with Haavisto and his officials to talk about this profound shift in attitude toward NATO. It was at that dinner that things got rolling for Joly and Canada to help get Finland and Sweden fast-tracked for NATO membership.

I spoke to Haavisto and Joly over the past week to get some insight into what was going on behind the scenes as Canada became an enthusiastic advocate for expanding NATO membership for Finland and Sweden.

This month, Canada boasted it had become the first NATO country to ratify the request for membership from Finland and Sweden. Joly, who calls it “a friendly competition” — for which she takes some credit — notes Canada had laid the groundwork to be first. She held consultations with her opposition critics in advance, and the House of Commons gave a unanimous vote of support for the ratification in June (even though Parliament’s approval wasn’t technically required).

Other nations have been hopping on the ratification bandwagon since Canada signed on — Denmark, Norway, Germany, Estonia and Iceland — but it could take as long as a year to get all NATO members on board. A question mark still hangs over whether Turkey’s approval, for instance, will come with some kind of conditions.

Joly believes the significance of this NATO expansion can’t be overlooked. For these “very progressive countries,” she says, it’s “one of the biggest changes in their foreign policy in 50 to 100 years.”

Joly came in for some withering criticism earlier this year when she talked publicly of Canada’s “convening power” on the global stage. For critics of Trudeau’s government, it was seen as an admission of no power at all, or at least a confession of Canada’s weakness with regard to NATO.

But Haavisto says he and the Finnish government appreciated how Canada — and Joly in particular — were convening the conversations about expanding NATO membership with other countries throughout the spring.

Canada, he said, provided “significant” reassurance that Finland and Sweden would get the unanimous approval they need from NATO’s 30 member countries — including Turkey, which has posted some objections — and that the bureaucratic hurdles could be cleared rapidly.

“Canada has been very systematically supporting us,” Haavisto says and noted, as Joly does, that their shared interests as Arctic nations played a major role in the discussions.

Canada, like Finland and Sweden, is part of the Arctic Council — an eight-nation intergovernmental forum that also includes the United States and Russia. Because of the crisis in Ukraine, the council suspended co-operation until just last month, when it announced it would resume its work — without Russia.

“For us, Canada, it was critically strategic to have them (as members), because now at this point, seven out of the eight countries will be part of NATO,” Joly said.

Haavisto is still talking to Joly quite often now — “She’s always travelling,” he remarked. She says she’s been busy trying to “keep the momentum” behind this bid to get Sweden and Finland into NATO. Joly has held meetings with Turkey and several other NATO members over the past weeks, trying to assess where potential problems and delays might come up.

In the meantime, though, Joly notes Canada will be treating Finland and Sweden as permanent members already. The three nations will also be looking at what needs to be done in the Arctic to protect it from potential Russian aggression.

I asked Haavisto whether Finland’s new-found support for NATO might diminish over the long haul, once the Ukraine crisis is over. If everyone, including the foreign minister, could have a change of mind so quickly, could the pro-NATO sentiment just as quickly vanish?

No, Haavisto says. “This is not the temporary change. This is really change in the long term.”


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