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Finland and Sweden want to join NATO. Here’s how it works

President Biden said today Finland and Sweden have the “full, total, complete backing” of the United States for their application to join NATO, the alliance that has been the cornerstone of Western defense since World War II.

President Biden said he was sending paperwork to Congress on Thursday to facilitate ratification of their bids.

“Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger,” Biden said. “And a strong, united NATO is the foundation of America’s security.”

What does it take to join NATO? 

NATO’s membership process isn’t formalized, and the steps can vary.

First though, a request to join must be submitted. It usually comes in the form of a letter from a government minister or leader.

NATO then assesses that request. That’s done in a sitting of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) of the 30 member countries, probably at ambassadorial level.

The NAC decides whether to move toward membership and what steps must be taken to achieve it. This depends on how well aligned the candidate countries are with NATO’s political, military and legal standards, and whether they contribute to security in the North Atlantic area. It should pose no problem for Finland and Sweden.

If the NAC gives a green light, accession talks are held. These are likely to be completed in just one day. The steps are fairly straight forward.

The candidate is asked to commit to uphold Article 5 — NATO’s collective defense clause guaranteeing that an attack on any one ally would be met with a response from them all. It would have to commit to spending obligations concerning the NATO in-house budget, which runs to around $2.5 billion dollars.

The candidate is made aware of their role in NATO defense planning, and of any other legal or security obligations they might have, like the vetting of personnel and handling of classified information.

NATO staff then write a report informing allies about the outcome of the talks. The report states what issues were raised with the partner and what commitments that country made. At the same time, the candidate sends a letter, usually from a foreign minister, confirming that their country accepts all these obligations.

How do they know whether they are accepted?

The accession report and candidate’s letter are submitted once more to the NAC for a final decision.

The council — which can meet at the level of ambassadors, ministers or leaders — then reviews the application, and decides whether to sign the accession protocol with the candidate.

If yes, a small ceremony is held giving a symbolic and legal form to this part of the membership process. The protocol is then sent to capitals for ratification according to the 30 national procedures, some of which require parliamentary approval.

Once completed, the invitee then ratifies the protocol and deposits it in Washington. They are then officially a member and their national flag is hoisted outside NATO headquarters in Brussels.

When countries joined NATO

1949NATO was formed with founding members Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States
1952Greece, Turkey
1955West Germany
1982Spain
1999Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland
2004Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia
2009Albania, Croatia
2017Montenegro
2020North Macedonia

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