The perennial NATO debate always flares up before a presidential election in Finland. This year was no exception, despite the fact that only one presidential candidate actively supports Finland's joining NATO.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he did not want to interfere with the Finnish NATO discussion, yet promised the Nordic country even closer cooperation without the necessity of joining the alliance. In an interview with Finnish national broadcaster Yle, Stoltenberg argued that NATO never forces a country to choose its political course.
"We respect countries that want full membership, sit down and negotiate with them. But we also respect countries that don't seek membership," Jens Stoltenberg said.
It has been universally admitted that Finland has never had such close cooperation with NATO as today. Finnish troops participate in NATO's war games on a regular basis, whereas Finnish Defense Minister is regularly invited to NATO meetings in Brussels. Finland is also a contributor to NATO-led "crisis management operation" in Afghanistan. However, NATO leader Stoltenberg believes that the Nordic country's involvement with the affairs of the alliance could be further intensified.
"We could do even more together. Have more joint drills, develop joint defense capabilities, collaborate in cyber security. Also, the hybrid center recently opened in Helsinki can contribute to further expansion of our cooperation," Stoltenberg argued.
Jens Stoltenberg, Norway's former prime minister, compared Finns' opposition to NATO to Norway's relation with the EU. While formally retaining its independence from Brussels, Norway is part of the European Economic Agreement (EEA), which gives the Nordic country access to the EU's market, while also imposing requirements on Norwegian legislation.
"I think it's a bit like Norway's relation with the EU. There is a big EU resistance in Norway, because we have such close cooperation with the union through various agreements. Perhaps many Finns also prefer close cooperation to membership," Stoltenberg ventured.
A number of high-profile Finnish politicians and analysts, including presidential candidate of the Swedish People's Party Nils Torvalds, advocated NATO membership. Former ambassador to Russia Hannu Himanen took the debate to a whole new level by urging his compatriots to submit a NATO application "as soon as possible."