Momentum is building in Sweden for the country to apply for Nato membership after its biggest selling newspaper endorsed the move and an opinion poll showed a record number of Swedes supported the idea.

The debate over membership of the western military alliance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been slower to ignite in Sweden than in neighbouring Finland, where an application is expected in the coming weeks.

The main obstacle to Swedish membership has been the ruling Social Democrat party, which has long been ideologically opposed to Nato and wedded to Sweden’s 200 years of neutrality.

Analysts said it was therefore highly significant that Aftonbladet, a tabloid partly owned by the trade union movement and seen as the house newspaper of the Social Democrats, published an editorial on Wednesday recommending Sweden join Nato.

Anders Lindberg, political editor at the newspaper, said it had a “little reluctantly” changed its opinion.

“I do not really see how Sweden and Finland will be able to guarantee our security outside Nato when Russia is ready in 2022 to start completely unprovoked a full-scale war against a neighbouring country,” he wrote in the editorial.

An opinion poll, also published in Aftonbladet on Wednesday, showed 57 per cent of Swedes were in favour of Nato membership and only 21 per cent against. Strikingly, it found for the first time a plurality of Social Democrats backing membership, with 41 per cent in favour and 25 per cent against.

Finland’s parliament will on Wednesday begin debating its security arrangements and everything points to the Nordic country, which has a 1,340km border with Russia, filing an application to join Nato in the coming weeks ahead of a June summit of the military alliance.

If Finland goes ahead, there will be a narrow majority in the Swedish parliament in favour of membership as the nationalist Sweden Democrats have said they will support the move if Helsinki acts first. But without the support of the Social Democrats, who have come first in every Swedish election for more than a century, a Nato bid has long been seen as unthinkable.

The party has begun an internal debate on joining the military alliance and is expected to make a decision by the end of May. Local media have cited sources saying that Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson is keen for the party to back membership, something she refused to deny last week.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a non-Nato member and neighbour, has rapidly changed the security situation in northern Europe where Finland in particular had aimed for cordial relations with Moscow.

Nato countries are likely to back Finnish and Swedish membership as a way of tightening security in the Baltic Sea and adding to the defence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. But officials in Helsinki and Stockholm are anxiously eyeing French elections at the weekend in which rightwing presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has pledged to take France out of Nato’s military structures.

Sweden has touted its ability to stay out of armed conflicts for more than two centuries. But in Aftonbladet on Wednesday Lindberg wrote: “I do not see how being militarily non-aligned is sufficient if Russia acts as it does today against equally non-aligned Ukraine. I do not think that Russia intends to stop there, so the Russian rhetoric has to be taken seriously.”

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