Sweden will complete its ‘long farewell to neutrality’ with Nato accession

<span>A US warship docked in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 2022 as part of Nato exercises.</span><span>Photograph: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images</span>
A US warship docked in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 2022 as part of Nato exercises.Photograph: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images

Just a few short months ago, Sweden’s Nato membership seemed a very long way from being a done deal. Having submitted its application to join in May 2022 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seemed at times as though Stockholm might be left hanging interminably. While Finland, which had applied to join the alliance at the same time as its neighbour, became a member at record speed last April, Sweden got stuck in a diplomatic quagmire.

Last summer a series of Qur’an burnings in Sweden inflamed ties with Turkey, making a “yes” from Ankara look unlikely and at times inconceivable. And as recently as September, Viktor Orbán’s government was embroiled in a public war of words with Sweden over criticism of Hungary’s democracy and teaching in Swedish schools. Late last month, after Turkey’s parliament had given Sweden the green light, the Hungarian prime minister was still pushing for negotiations in a public letter to his Swedish counterpart, Ulf Kristersson.

Now all that is history. The almost two-year waiting game ended last week when Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, announced that the issue would be raised in parliament. By Friday, Kristersson and Orbán were standing side by side unveiling a military deal enabling Hungary to buy four Gripen planes from Sweden and declaring that while they still did not agree on everything, they were “prepared to die for each other”. On Monday the Hungarian parliament finally voted in favour of the Scandinavian country’s membership.

Providing that all the admin between Hungary and Washington goes to plan, it could be a matter of days before Sweden’s flag is flying outside Nato’s HQ in Brussels. But what will this mean for Sweden and the wider world?

For Nato, it gives the alliance access to Sweden’s territory and turns the Baltic into a “Nato sea” surrounded by member countries.

Emma Rosengren, a research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, said Sweden would probably serve as a logistical hub for defence planning, “including transportation of personnel and materiel to an imagined future war front”.

And what of Sweden? For months, the country has been preparing for this moment, acting almost as if it were already a full Nato member. It has signed a deal with the US giving full access to 17 of its military bases, started its Nato integration and even announced plans to send forces to Latvia.

For the historically neutral country, it marks a dramatic change in national identity. In January, Kristersson warned Swedes – accustomed to seeing themselves as a peaceful nation – to prepare for the possibility of war and the country restarted compulsory civic duty, a form of national service that had been dismantled after the cold war. A small proportion of the population will be called up for military service against their will. Nato membership also means increased defence spending.

For Social Democrat voters, the move will mark a particularly striking departure. The idea of Nato membership was long considered unthinkable in the party, with a former defence minister, Peter Hultqvist, declaring in the autumn of 2021 that he could “guarantee” that he would never participate in a process to join NATO.

Only months later, as Russia’s invasion led to a dramatic shift in both public opinion and among political parties, the leader of the Social Democrats, then prime minister Magdalena Andersson, embarked on the process of Sweden’s membership.

Magnus Hjort, the director general of Sweden’s psychological defence agency, has described it as a historic moment for the country. Robert Dalsjö, a director of research at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, said Hungary’s vote could make Sweden a Nato member by the end of the week. He said the alliance already had a marquee and flagpole prepared for the ceremony.

At a macro level, Dalsjö said, the step was part of something much bigger, completing Sweden’s “long farewell to neutrality” – a process that began at the end of the cold war when it dropped the label and applied for EU membership.

For Kristersson, the moderate leader of Sweden’s centre-right ruling coalition who has had the Nato issue hanging over him since becoming prime minister in October 2022, it will be a huge relief.

With his Moderate party facing relatively low poll ratings – the Social Democrats lead, followed by the far-right Sweden Democrats – it puts him more forcefully on to the world stage as a key player in a new Nordic power base. And removing Nato from the to-do list was a key priority for his government, leaving more time for domestic issues such as gang crime.