The war in Ukraine has once again given NATO the leading role in international politics that it had during the Cold War. The decision of Finland and Sweden to break their traditional neutrality and enter the Atlantic Alliance It has made clear how the Russian threat can lead to an expansion of the member countries and a greater influence of this organization.
Since its founding after World War II, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has grown from the original 12 members to 30 before the Madrid Summit, and at 32 to which it is going to be extended now. Its expansion towards Eastern Europe, with the entry of the Baltic countries, Romania or Bulgaria in 2004, increased the tension with Russia.
The possible entry of Ukraine, which has aspired to join NATO since 2008, focused negotiations with Russia on the first weeks of the war. Moscow demanded the neutrality of kyiv as a condition for a hypothetical cessation of hostilities.
We review what the NATO accession process is like, what requirements are necessary and how long the process can take.
Who can enter NATO?
According to the North Atlantic Treaty, the organization’s founding text, can enter it “any European State that is in a position to promote the development of the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area”. This is what is known as “open door policy” and that removes any veto on the entry of new members, which would allow the entry of Finland or Sweden if the allies approve their applications.
Later, after the end of the Cold War, it was agreed that in order to join NATO, applicants must meet a series of additional conditions to guarantee its democratic functioning. Among them, civilian control of the Army, a democratic system based on market economyrespect for minorities and a commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts.
What are the steps to enter?
First, after the applicant country’s application, the members must invite the applicant country to join the organization. They must do it for “unanimous agreement” of each of the 30 current members, according to article 10 of the Treaty. From then on, a period of “accession negotiations” begins at NATO headquarters in Brussels, in which it is assessed whether the country meets the conditions to join the alliance, and a reform schedule in order to comply with these conditions if necessary.
Requesting countries may then enter a transition period. First, in the preliminary phase of “intensified dialogue” with NATO, and later in the Accession Action Plan (MAP), through which NATO offers assistance to the candidate to carry out the necessary reforms. Bosnia-Herzegovina is currently in this more advanced phase, while Ukraine and Georgia are still in “intensified dialogue”.
At the end of this period, NATO then prepares a adhesion protocol specific to the country that wants to join, a protocol that must then be ratified by the Member States in their respective parliaments. Everyone can make concrete demands on the candidate country.
Once the candidate country has carried out the internal legislative changes necessary for accession, the process is definitively completed by depositing the NATO entry documents with the United States Department of State.
How long can the process take?
It depends on each case, but in total the transition period can take more than a decade or even 20 years. Ukraine, the first country to enter into “intensified dialogue” in 2005, and Georgia, the second to do so in 2006, are still in that phase. Albania and Croatia were in the MAP for seven years, between 2002 and 2009, Montenegro for eight, between 2009 and 2017, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the only country currently in that phase, entered in 2010. One of the longest processes has been that of North Macedoniawhich joined the Plan in 1999 and did not complete its accession until 2020. The delay was mainly due to the reluctance of Greece, a member of NATO, regarding the name of the country.
How has the process been for Finland and Sweden?
Until now, Turkey’s reluctance to Sweden’s entry prevented reaching the unanimity of the allies that is required to formally invite a country. However, during the NATO summit in Madrid, the two Nordic countries have reached an agreement with Ankara for the Erdogan government to lift its veto. Turkey was opposed to the entry of Stockholm due to the Swedish policy of welcoming Kurdish militants that it considers “terrorists”.
The process has progressed “rapidly” so far, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. In a press conference on the first day of the summit, he trusted that it would continue at a good pace, although he recognized that the approval process by the 30 parliaments “it may take some time.” This period can last about a year.
Another problem has been the vulnerability of these countries in the period between the formal request and the official entry into NATO of the two Nordic countries. Vladimir Putin pointed out that the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO is not a “threat”, but has warned that Moscow will have to “react” if this income supposes the emplacement of military infrastructure.
“We have already seen threats to Finland. The main concern is that moment between the application and the official entry. It is feared that in that period Russia will carry out a hybrid war or even a conventional warbecause Finland at that time would not be under the NATO umbrella,” Carlota García Encina, a researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute, assured in an interview on TVE.
In the absence of other announcements from the West, The United Kingdom signed an agreement on security guarantees to give tranquility to Helsinki and Stockholm. The text includes a commitment to help in case of crisis or military attackin addition to greater cooperation in areas such as military intelligence, technology, purchase of weapons or military maneuvers.
“What we are saying is that in the event of a disaster or an attack on Sweden, the UK would come to their aid with whatever he asked for,” explained British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, after meeting with his Swedish counterpart on a visit to the Nordic country. He also clarified that this agreement would affect Finland in the same way.
What does it mean to be a member of NATO?
Once within the Atlantic Alliance, the country undertakes to participate as far as possible in the common budget -which has increased after the war in Ukraine-, to maintain a democratic system and a capitalist economy, and in one of the most relevant points of the Treaty, article 5, to respond militarily to an attack against one of its members.
In the case of Finland, its entry would mean a change in the balance of forces in the Baltic. The country has a 1,500-kilometre border with Russia and a large army. The expansion to the east initiated by NATO after the fall of the USSR would be consummated, which would be a blow against Putin’s expectations of stopping this expansion by invading Ukraine.