HELSINKI, Nov. 5 (Xinhua) -- An opinion poll indicated on Sunday that 59 percent of Finns oppose joining NATO, as U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrived in Helsinki to attend meetings that would bring NATO and the EU closer in defense cooperation.
The poll, commissioned by newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (HS), showed that 22 percent of interviewees backed joining NATO and 19 percent could not say. The result was more unfavorable to NATO as the previous HS poll in 2014 showed 57 percent opposed a NATO membership and 26 percent endorsed it.
Finns' preference of NATO reached its highest in 2014 when the Ukraine crisis broke out, but before that the backing had remained merely between 16 and 19 percent.
While Finnish political elite largely shares the public view, practical defense cooperation between Finland and the U.S. has progressed fast in recent years. Mattis will hold talks on Monday with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Defense Minister Jussi Niinisto.
Mattis will also attend a meeting of NATO's Northern Group Defense Ministers. The NATO Northern Group includes Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Norway, Iceland and Denmark.
Besides, a meeting of the five Nordic countries and a meeting that comprises the Nordics and the three Baltic countries will also take place. Finnish Defense Ministry said an MoU is to be signed between the five Nordics on exchange of air surveillance data.
Ilkka Kanera, chairman of the Finnish parliamentary defense committee, said the series of meetings are to enhance the relationship between NATO and the EU, and also to increase regional defense cooperation in Europe.
Last week, Jussi Niinisto said Finland had started preparations for a major military exercise of a scale that Finland had not arranged since the end of the cold war. He said he would brief the Nordic and NATO Northern Group defense ministers about the plan during the upcoming meetings.
The major exercise in Finland is speculated to take place the earliest in 2020 due to the long planning process. Jussi Niinisto has said Finland wants many countries to join.
Local analysts have pointed out that there is much space between "being in NATO" and "outside". In the past three years, Finnish defense cooperation with NATO has deepened and networking with Sweden and the U.S. has increased.
Matti Pesu, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told HS that the people of Finland do not yet quite understand how the position of Finland changed.
Merja Kyllonen, the Left League candidate running for the Finnish presidency, is critical of the trend. "It is an absurd situation that at the same time as the public opinion is different, our defense policy is getting close to NATO all the time", Kyllonen told HS on Sunday.
Both incumbent president Sauli Niinisto and the Green candidate Pekka Haavisto have noted that even intense cooperation with NATO does not secure Finland.