Visit to Helsinki provides timely looks at Finland’s bid for NATO membership
BGIPU sent a delegation to Helsinki from 26-30 September 2022 led by Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP and comprising Lord Beith, Bob Blackman MP, John Nicolson MP and Dan Carden MP. The visit was the first bilateral visit by BGIPU for twenty years and came at an extremely opportune time, given the close and very direct threats to Finland from its eastern neighbour, Russia. The delegation heard consistently about the widespread support for joining NATO that now exists across the population and how grateful Finland is for the UK’s support for the NATO application.
Following a briefing with HM Ambassador Bubbear on the evening of our arrival, we were treated to a whistlestop tour of the city the following morning and then a day of defence briefings. Our meeting with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs on the first morning was a breakneck introduction to the issues affecting Finland given its geographic location. It was an ideal way to start to explore matters and to gain a better understanding of the threats – it was commented that such a briefing prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would have helped many in the UK Parliament during our debates.
The afternoon was dedicated to defence briefings at the Finnish Ministry of Defence. It was clear that the UK has always been an incredibly important strategic partner for Finland on defence issues, including being part of the Joint Expeditionary Force. In the evening, we were hosted at Königstedt Manor, which included a sauna and a dip in the river for the brave.
Tuesday was focused on parliamentary relations, with a tour of the Parliament, followed by a meeting with Finnish MPs who serve on the foreign and defence affairs committees. We then met Finnish IPU members before an opportunity to meet the Finnish Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Human Rights Commission. These were useful in allowing us to explore how our equivalent bodies might be improved based on the experiences of our friends in Finland. The final briefing of the day was with the National Emergency Supply Agency. Fuel security is vital to the Finns and their preparedness for problems is outstanding. Dinner in the evening was with members of the Finnish Parliament’s Finland – UK Friendship Group. Another great opportunity to make new friends.
Wednesday started with a trip to Suomenlinnen, where we were given a great tour of one of the landmarks of Helsinki. We then travelled to outside Helsinki to the Nokia HQ to learn about how Nokia’s technology is helping our UK networks in delivering safe and reliable connectivity to our constituents. We then learned an incredible amount about cyber-security with Withsecure, real experts in the field.
Our final engagement was a meeting at the UK residence with Kai Sauer, Under-Secretary of State at the Finnish Foreign Affairs Ministry. We discussed the practical ways that UK parliamentarians can help to push for ratification of Finland’s NATO application. Following are some additional perspectives from other delegation members.
“My abiding impression will be of the shared commitment of every Finn we met to the “total defence” of their country; there was universal support for Finland’s application to join NATO, and a hope that the UK would give any help it could to expedite membership. This included willing acceptance of military reserve duties, acceptance of wider obligations to the security of the country, and acceptance of the need for maximum self-sufficiency. The last was exemplified in the slogan “could you survive for 72 hours?”
Another impression was the low impact of immigration, probably because of the language, but the Russian mobilisation was bringing many more through the border and posing new challenges. Plans for a border fence were under discussion while we were there. And the pipeline explosions happened while we were there – nearer to Sweden and Denmark, but on pipelines which pass very close to the coast of Finland. A country facing a significant potential threat calmly but with real determination.”
John Nicholson MP
“Our trip to Helsinki was impeccably timed. Finland has decided to abandon neutrality and join NATO. This was the main talking point of most of our meetings. Politicians we met from across the political spectrum are convinced that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine requires that Finland embrace NATO with the added protection that membership will bring. For any waverers, a recent assertion by the Russian President calling Finland’s independence a mistake sealed their conviction that neutrality has served its purpose and was no longer sufficient guarantee of the country’s borders.
Borders, of course, are a painful subject for Finland. Invaded by Stalin at the start of the Second World War, the country fought off the Soviet Union but had to surrender a huge part of its territory – Karelia – to secure an uneasy peace. This history is little known outside of Finland, but Finns have not forgotten.
The Finns have a slight ‘told you so’ attitude towards the rest of us. They’ve never trusted Russia and think of us as very gullible in our handling of Putin over the past decade. While other European countries such as the UK have decreased defence spending and many have increased dependency on Russian energy, Finland has invested heavily in defence and has no reliance on Russian energy. For a small country, Finland is impressively armed. Every Finnish man signs up for military service (there is some controversy about this not being a requirement for women) and there are periodic refresher courses. Most Finns – and everyone living in urban centres – can be accommodated in bomb shelters in the event of war. These are impressively well supplied with food, water, and medical facilities. We were provided with enormous detail of every aspect of this preparedness…. Finland is proud both of its readiness and of the quiet, understated way in which it has prepared for all eventualities.
Finland, of course, isn’t joining on its own but with its western neighbour Sweden. Both countries have NATO compatible militaries. But Sweden has no border with Russia and appears to have wrestled with the decision to apply. Russia has never questioned Sweden’s right to exist. But Putin’s decision repeatedly to ‘buzz’ Gotland, illegally entering Sweden’s air space over the Baltic island has backfired spectacularly prompting initially an enhanced defence of the island, and now NATO membership.