Yves here. Wellie, I never thought I’d run a piece from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, but this one makes a big admission against US/NATO interests: that Turkiye, or here Turkey and Sweden are still at odds over Sweden’s NATO bid. Erdogan is insisting on progress in curbing protests by the Kurdish party PKK, which Turkiye deems to be a terrorist organization. This is problematic for Sweden since that would violate their free speech protections.
- Sweden’s NATO accession has been delayed due to Turkey’s demands concerning fighting terrorism, lifting an arms embargo on Ankara, and fulfilling extradition requests; these issues still remain a year later.
- Finland, which initially applied for NATO membership alongside Sweden, decided to decouple and entered NATO as the 31st member in April.
- The final decision for Sweden’s NATO membership relies heavily on resolving differences between Stockholm and Ankara, and it’s possible that intervention from the NATO secretary-general or even the U.S. president may be needed.
The saga of Sweden’s NATO accession is now likely entering its endgame. Having applied to join the military alliance together with Finland in the wake of Russian’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many initially expected a quick accession. But it has turned out to be more complicated than first anticipated. Turkey signaled that it needed to see progress from Helsinki — but notably Sweden — in areas such as fighting terrorism, the lifting of an arms embargo on Ankara, and fulfilling Turkish extradition requests.
While the trio signed a memorandum of understanding on the sidelines of the NATO Madrid summit in June 2022, outlining what needed to be done by the Nordic duo in order to get Turkish ratification, the fact remains that, as NATO approaches the Vilnius summit in July, those issues still remain a year down the line.
The prospects looked grim earlier this year when two different protests held in Sweden truly enraged Ankara. In one, Kurds hung upside down an effigy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan near Stockholm’s city hall, while, in the other, a Swedish-Danish far-right politician and provocateur set fire to a copy of the Koran outside the Turkish Embassy in the Swedish capital.
Given Sweden’s slow progress, Finland decided to decouple and enter alone, becoming NATO member number 31 in early April. Most NATO officials I have spoken to on background say that there were never really any issues with Finland, only Sweden.
There also doesn’t appear to be much of an issue with Hungary, either. Budapest’s refusal so far to ratify Sweden’s membership is just solidarity with Turkey, according to the NATO officials I’ve spoken to.
Budapest hasn’t actually made any concrete demands on Sweden other than a few complaints about Swedish politicians criticizing the country’s rule of law, and Hungary has indicated that it won’t be the last country to ratify Swedish membership.
So, in the end, it will be about Stockholm and Ankara ironing out their differences, whether ahead of the Vilnius summit on July 11-12, during, or shortly afterwards.
Deep Background: The smart money is that there will be a deal in Vilnius that will allow the Turkish parliament to ratify later in July before it goes into recess until October. “Erdogan likes to be in the limelight and, just like in Madrid in 2022, he will find a way to steal the show at the summit,” a NATO diplomat who isn’t authorized to speak on the record recently told me with a smile.
Swedish and Turkish officials met in Ankara earlier in June, and it is possible that they will meet again in the days and weeks ahead of the summit.
However, NATO officials have told me that there is little left to solve at this level and it is time for the countries’ political leaders to reach an agreement.
There have been extraditions to Turkey, mostly Kurds on terrorism charges, although not as many as Turkey would like. “This is for the courts to decide, not the government” is a common refrain I hear from Swedish officials and diplomats.
A Swedish arms embargo on Turkey has been lifted and, as of June 1, there has been new Swedish counterterrorism legislation that could potentially make it easier to hand over people from Sweden.
While that won’t stop anti-Erdogan protests in Swedish cities, it could help prevent displaying at such events flags of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey designates a terrorist group. Plus, events in which burning the Koran will occur are unlikely to get permission to go ahead in the future.
The big question is whether that will be enough for Erdogan, who told NATO’s secretary-general in a phone call on June 25 that Sweden must stop protests by supporters of the PKK to get a green light on its NATO membership bid and that Sweden’s change of its terrorism law was “meaningless” while such protests continued.
But if Ankara insists on seeing concrete results from the new counterterrorism law, this could potentially drag on for years. So, if the Swedish prime minister and the Turkish president can’t find a compromise in Vilnius, then it might be that they’ll need assistance, or intervention, from the NATO secretary-general or even the U.S. president.
- The way things could be solved is a giant political package at — or on the sidelines of — the Vilnius summit. There might be a commitment by Washington to send F-16 fighter jets to Ankara — something that Turkey has been eyeing for a long time. The U.S. Congress, however, has been reluctant to green-light the sale of the jets until Sweden becomes a member of the alliance. So, there might be room for maneuver there. That is not the only sweetener the United States could offer. It’s possible there could be a further loosening of other U.S. arms export restrictions to Turkey. Plus, a possible visit by Erdogan to the U.S. capital in the fall.
- In the meantime, Jens Stoltenberg might be asked to stay on for an extra year as NATO secretary-general, due to a reported lack of consensus on his replacement. That would be something that Turkey would look favorably upon as Stoltenberg enjoys good relations with the Turkish leadership and, apparently, Ankara isn’t too keen on any other Nordic candidate for the position. (There has been speculation that Danish Prime Minister Mette Fredriksen has been eyeing the secretary-general post.)
- Stoltenberg, who has headed the military alliance since 2014, has been adamant that he would prefer to step down after the Vilnius summit. But it could very well be that he is asked to stay on until the next summit in Washington, D.C., in July 2024, when NATO celebrates its 75th anniversary.
- Another crucial piece of a possible deal could involve an agreement on updated NATO defense plans. NATO countries have failed to reach consensus on the new plans, with several sources familiar with the issue saying that Turkey is the main obstruction to an agreement on the secret military blueprints of how NATO would respond to a potential Russian attack. According to my sources, Turkey’s main objection to the updated defense plans is that it wants the Bosphorus to be called “the Turkish straits” — something that Greece has balked at.