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Europe has ‘no choice’ but to increase defence spending: former Finland PM Sanna Marin

Jovi Ho
Jovi Ho • 5 min read
Europe has ‘no choice’ but to increase defence spending: former Finland PM Sanna Marin
“Small” countries like Finland “don’t have the luxury” to disagree on foreign and security policy, says Marin, who stepped down in September 2023. Photo: Amundi
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Russia’s attack on Ukraine, now two years in, is only the “forefront” of a much larger and wider ongoing “war of values”, says Sanna Marin, former Prime Minister of Finland. 

“If democratic countries send out a message that we are weak, we’re not behind our values, we’re not behind these rules-based order and we will let Russia and Putin run over Ukraine, then the whole rule-based order system will collapse,” says Marin to applause at the Amundi World Investment Forum in Paris on June 13.

This is a defining moment of history, where democracy has to show strength, adds Marin, who became the world’s youngest premier when she was elected to Finland's top job in 2019.

Marin, who stepped down in September 2023, saw her country through the Covid-19 pandemic and into NATO. Last year, members of the military alliance reinforced their commitment to spending at least 2% of their GDP on defence. In March this year, members of the European Union (EU) announced greater investment to come via the European Defence Industrial Strategy. 

“I don’t think that we have any other choice but to raise our defence budget,” says Marin. “I think the 2% should be a minimum. Finland, my own home country, is already [at] that level. And no surprise, we have a long border with Russia [of] over 1,200 kilometres.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in February that 18 of its member countries will reach the 2% target in 2024, days after former US president Donald Trump criticised the alliance for under-investing. 

See also: America can lead the multipolar world — if it chooses: Gordon Brown

This is up from 1.47% of the EU’s collective GDP back in 2014, when the Defence Investment Pledge was made. According to Stoltenberg, NATO allies in Europe will invest a combined total of US$380 billion ($514.12 billion) into defence this year, amounting to 2% of their combined GDP for the first time.  

Europe has no choice but to increase defence spending, adds Marin, “because we cannot always rely on the help of the US”. “I’m very grateful [to the] US [for playing] such a big part in this war in Ukraine. We’re very grateful for all the help: military help, economic help, everything that the US is providing. But at the same time, Europe has to look in the mirror and see the harsh reality that we are not capable of handling the situation ourselves.”

Finland and NATO’s newest member Sweden see Russia as a neighbour that does not respect borders, says Marin. “What is the only border that Russia would respect? It’s the NATO border. So that is, of course, the single most important reason why Finland is now a NATO country.”

See also: Whether it’s Biden or Trump, Europe knows it must stand alone

Finland’s accession into NATO was the shortest in the alliance’s history; Marin announced her country would apply for NATO membership in May 2022, and the country successfully joined in April 2023.

To guard against Russian propaganda during this time, Marin says she was in close contact with her country’s neighbours, including then-Swedish PM Magdalena Andersson. “We planned every step of the way to get there, we announced everything together, we made every decision at the same time within our countries.”

“Small” countries like Finland “don’t have the luxury” to disagree on foreign and security policy, adds Marin. “We have to stick together and we have to make decisions in a consensus as broadly as possible, because we have this big pressure [from] our neighbour. We cannot afford to have any quarrels when it comes to [the] most important things in our societies, like security, like defence, like foreign policy.”

Marin hopes her government’s handling of Finland’s accession into NATO can be an example for other small states. “I hope that other countries out there [can] learn something from the Finnish way of handling these very important crucial decisions that we all have to make, whether it’s in the public and political side or in the private side, when it comes to these matters. These are very, very serious, and unfortunately, the reality of the world today.” 

Existential threats

Geopolitics is not the only threat that humankind faces today, says Marin. “We [are] also facing this existential threat of climate change and loss of biodiversity. If we don’t tackle these threats, we don’t get another chance; this is the harsh reality here.”

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Finland has set a goal to become carbon-neutral by 2035, a “very high target”, according to Marin. She acknowledges that Finland alone, if it achieves this goal, will not stop climate change, and “big players” like China and all of Europe need to also be onboard. 

“But why do we want to be so ambitious? It’s economic reasons, of course, to be at the forefront, to be the front player in this change that’s inevitable anyway,” says Marin. “[This] gives our businesses and our companies the leverage in the future to promote [and] export these great solutions that we are producing.”

‘Everything happened’

Since resigning from the Finnish Parliament, Marin has taken up a role as strategic adviser at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Reflecting on her time in office, she says “everything happened” in the four years she held the top job. “First, the pandemic, I was Prime Minister only for a couple of months [then]; then the war in Europe, followed by the energy crisis and the blackmail of Putin using energy against Europe, then inflation.”

The way Marin sees it, the series of crises in recent years is a learning point “not only for politicians, but also private businesses”.

“We have to be more prepared when it comes to these big challenges that we are facing and we have to stop being naive… I think what is important is that we really [take] these big challenges that we’re facing seriously and that each one of us is [tries] to make a difference in the world, hopefully for the better.”

Photos: Amundi

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