Swedes cheer end of long wait to join Nato

Image caption,

Wilma: “If Russia were to attack us… we have several countries that support us”

Nearly two years after applying for NATO membership, many Swedes say there is palpable relief that the wait to secure membership in the military alliance is finally over.

As commuters in Stockholm rushed to work in temperatures of -1 degrees Celsius, few were in the mood for a detailed post-mortem of the job application process. But many said they already felt safer just a day after Sweden officially joined NATO, following a document handover in Washington.

“I actually think it’s great. It feels safe and it’s about time,” said 58-year-old Kristina McConnell, a former Army veteran who was heading to the downtown law firm where she now practices.

Sweden has embraced war neutrality for more than two hundred years, and a decade ago a majority of residents opposed joining the multinational military alliance.

But support for membership increased in the mid-2010s, amid increasing signs of Russian aggression in the region, including reports of spy planes in Baltic airspace and a suspected submarine in Swedish waters.

In early 2022, the country’s then Social Democratic government – ​​long opposed to joining NATO – changed its position, following Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Sweden quickly applied for membership.

“Swedes were shocked by the Russian action; they saw their elites quickly change their position on NATO; and they went along with it,” explains Nicholas Aylott, a political scientist at Södertörn University and the Swedish Institute for International Affairs.

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Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (left) says Sweden “shares burdens, responsibilities and risks with other allies”

Polls showed that around two-thirds of voters were in favor of joining NATO, as Sweden formally declared its candidacy in May 2022. That figure has remained largely constant; In a survey for polling firm Novus, 63% of respondents said in January 2024 that they supported Sweden becoming a NATO member.

At Sergels Torg, the huge black-and-white cobbled square in central Stockholm, Wilma, 16, told the BBC she already thought she would feel safer in her daily life now that Sweden was part of the 32-member NATO alliance.

“For example, if Russia were to attack us, we have several countries supporting us, so you can feel safer.”

There is also a clear sense of pride among many Swedes that their small country of just 10 million people is seen by others in the alliance as a valuable new member.

On Friday morning, Swedish commercial television news TV4 led its bulletins with video clips of US President Joe Biden mentioning Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in his State of the Union address.

The cameras zoomed in on the center-right moderate party leader standing beaming in the crowd as Biden said: “Mr Prime Minister, welcome to NATO, the strongest military alliance the world has ever known.”

The Swedish tabloid Expressen wrote a review of how the international media had reacted to the development, citing the US network NBC which described it as “the most important expansion of the Western military alliance in decades”, and an editorial in the Norwegian newspaper VG which declared that an “old dream of a Nordic defense union” had finally been fulfilled.

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Stanislav Yordanov says his family is divided over NATO membership

Sweden’s membership application stalled due to opposition from NATO members Hungary and Turkey, who only recently changed their positions.

Turkey had initially withheld approval in a row over what it called Swedish support for Kurdish separatists, while Hungary accused Sweden of being hostile.

Dr. Aylott said the “long wait since the Swedish application” had been a “source of much frustration” for Swedish politicians across the spectrum.

The teacher added that “most of the political class is somewhere between slightly euphoric and just relieved” that the paperwork was complete.

But there are still people who do not support Sweden’s NATO membership.

The country’s left-wing party and the remaining Green party are opposed.

On Thursday, left-wing MP Håkan Svenneling appeared on Swedish public television channel SVT and said there is now a risk of Sweden being “pulled into the wars and conflicts of others.”

Kerstin Bergeå, president of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Association (Svenska freds), told the same network that state money would be better spent on “investments in diplomacy, in prevention, in tackling the causes of conflict, so that wars don’t have to happen.” break’. out”.

Outside Stockholm Central Station, 21-year-old Stanislav Yordanov – who moved to Sweden from Bulgaria at the age of nine – said his family was divided over NATO membership.

The car rental company believed that Sweden’s entry is “good”, while other family members “think it will lead to nasty reactions from other countries”.

The official position of the government and military is that there is a risk of conflict, but because all NATO members are expected to help an ally under attack, Sweden will now be better protected.

Despite accusations of alarmism, the messages appeared to have limited impact on the public, with little sign of panic buying in Swedish supermarkets.

‘My impression is that most ordinary people are much less involved [than the political elite]Dr Aylott said. “Despite attempts by politicians and the top military to recently warn about the risk of conflict spreading, few Swedes really think that the country is seriously threatened.”

But Aylott suggested that joining NATO would have a small but noticeable visual impact, which could influence public discussions.

He said there is already a public debate about where and when the NATO flag should be flown by public institutions, and that greater military cooperation would likely result in a greater military presence in the region.

“Warships from NATO countries are often docked in Swedish ports. Yet there will probably be more of that kind – more foreign soldiers on Swedish soil, more joint exercises,” he explained, “and it could be very visible.”

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