INTERVIEW: Would the EU defend Sweden if it was attacked?

Could the EU's mutual defence clause, which says member states will help each other if one is attacked, provide extra security for Sweden?

Björn Fägersten, Senior Research Fellow and Director of UI's Europe Programme.
Björn Fägersten, Senior Research Fellow and Director of UI's Europe Programme. Photo: Claudio Bresciani / TT

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reignited Sweden’s long-running debate about its own defence, and in particular whether it should join Nato. Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has rejected joining the transatlantic alliance, but has written to EU leaders along with her Finnish counterpart to remind them of the bloc’s mutual defence clause, which says member states will come to each others’ aid “with all possible means” if one of them is attacked.

Sweden and Finland are close partners of Nato, but as non-members they can’t count on Nato intervening militarily if attacked, as they aren’t covered by the alliance’s Article 5 guarantee. Andersson this week ruled out joining Nato, saying that an application to join “would destabilise this part of Europe even further.”

But does the EU’s mutual defence clause really provide Sweden with a cast-iron guarantee? Björn Fägersten, head of the Europe program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, says there are some key differences between the EU’s and Nato’s guarantees.

The Local: Does the EU’s mutual defence clause have a similar effect to Nato’s Article 5?

Björn Fägersten: In a purely legal sense they are equivalent – in some ways the EU is a bit sharper. But on the other hand, the EU’s clause has a sub-clause that makes clear that it doesn’t affect member states’ individual choices on security policy, for instance for those countries that are neutral.

A key difference between the EU and Nato is that the EU has no real apparatus. Nato has a joint military headquarters, SHAPE, but the EU doesn’t have an equivalent.

Within the EU there are also expectations that Nato will be at the centre of European planning – most EU countries are members. In the EU’s Global Strategy from 2016 it is made clear that Nato is the cornerstone of the EU’s defence.

TL: So what’s the point of this clause?

BF: There are a few things: for instance, it could be used in scenarios where Article 5 would be less relevant, like cyber- or hybrid attacks, or if two Nato countries ended up in conflict with one another, like Greece or Turkey. And it also covers countries like Sweden and Finland that aren’t part of Nato.

TL: What sort of military coordination does the EU have?

BF: The EU has an embryonic military planning organisation, but its purpose is mostly to coordinate small missions outside Europe. But clearly in a future scenario, for instance if there was a feeling that US support wasn’t going to be there, it could be used for European defence.

Finland has long been pushing for the mutual defence clause to be filled with more meaning, as has France, for whom this dovetails with the aim of the EU achieving ‘strategic autonomy.’

TL: At present the most significant EU military power is France, but so far the strongest statements in favour of defending Sweden and Finland have come from the US and UK. What does that tell us?

BF: This is really an effect of what has become known as the Hultqvist Doctrine [after Sweden’s defence minister Peter Hultqvist], under which Sweden will build as much security as possible through cooperation with the US and to some extent the UK. Sweden has also built a very close cooperation with both in arms manufacturing. But of course this is not uncomplicated: Sweden ends up being pulled in two directions when the EU also wants to build its own defence cooperation. We have had a very transatlantic focus, and been an outlier within the EU together with the UK, but after Brexit we have moved towards the EU mainstream.

TL: Looking to the future, many in the EU, not least Macron, have long spoken about the need for strategic autonomy, where Europe will take a more independent line in defence from the US. Last week Germany announced a huge increase in defence spending. How will that change the equation for Sweden?

BF: If in the long term Europe starts taking greater responsibility while the US takes the main responsibility for handling China, that would change Sweden’s calculation. Sweden would like there to be an American interest in its security, but if, for example, a new president was elected in the US in 2024 who had a more doubtful approach to European security, Sweden would be forced to rapidly reevaluate its defence strategy.

TL: Sweden has a memorandum of understanding with Nato (the ‘värdlandsavtal’), under which Sweden can host Nato forces engaged in operations in the region. Does that provide Sweden with a degree of protection?

BF: This gives the possibility of cooperation, which could give a degree of security, but it is no guarantee. We are as close as you can get to being members of Nato, but we don’t have security guarantees.

There’s quite a big difference between this and a traditional neutrality doctrine: the Swedish policy means that we are clearly seen as part of the West, both politically and militarily, so that is a risk. But the [ruling] Social Democrats say that it would be a risk to decide to join Nato and thereby create uncertainty.

Member comments

  1. I didn’t even bother to read the article in the face of the very obvious.
    Of course European countries including NATO would defend Sweden……if Putin was to decide to attack Sweden…..he would have to start with Finland…..etc…..etc…….and this would lead….because no other option… nuclear Armageddon…….in a nutshell…..the end of the world … least in Europe.
    I know Americans would not be dragged into this and would be quite happy leading their lives as if nothing happened.
    We have no other choice but to defend Sweden……what’s the point of having the EU ? Everybody is now realising how right Macron was in his request to boost defence.
    Instead of that…..Germans rolled on their back, wanting to believe it was ok to ditch nuclear energy and now what ? On their knees to get liquid gas not even to heat their ageing population but to get their economy rolling.

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Swedish PM and opposition leader announce decision to join Nato

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has announced her government's decision to take Sweden into Nato, ending two centuries of military non-alignment.

Swedish PM and opposition leader announce decision to join Nato

In a joint press conference held with Ulf Kristersson, leader of the opposition Moderate Party, Andersson said joining the alliance would act as a deterrent against Russian aggression. 

“The government has decided to inform Nato that Sweden wants to become a member of the alliance,” Andersson told reporters a day after neighbouring Finland made a similar announcement.

“We are leaving one era and beginning another,” she said, adding that Sweden’s Nato ambassador would “shortly” inform Nato.

Ulf Kristersson, whose party has long supported membership of the alliance, said that he wanted to put party political differences aside to support the government in its decision.  

“There are many major issues where we think differently, but we are going to take a joint responsibility for the process of taking Sweden into Nato,” he said. 

Sweden and Finland have both expressed a desire to act in lockstep on NATO membership and submit their applications jointly.

“We expect it shouldn’t take more than a year” for the alliance’s 30 members to unanimously ratify Sweden’s membership application, Andersson said.

The announcement was expected after her Social Democratic party on Sunday backed membership, in a dramatic turnaround after having opposed the idea since the birth of the Western military alliance.

It came after a debate in parliament in which all parties apart from the Green Party and Left Party spoke in favour of Sweden joining the alliance.  

“It is now clear that there is a broad majority in Sweden’s parliament for Sweden joining Nato,” she said. 

After Sweden’s announcement, Denmark, Norway and Iceland published a joint statement in which they promised to Sweden “by all means necessary” if the country is attacked in the gap between application and admission to the alliance. 

“Should Finland or Sweden be victim of aggression on their territory before obtaining Nato membership, we will assist Finland and Sweden by all means necessary,” the three countries said. “We immediately initiate preparations in order to effectuate these security assurances.”

Sweden’s defence minister Peter Hultqvist is flying to Washington, where he will meet his counterpart Lloyd Austin.