Turkey is expected to support Finland for NATO membership, knocking out Sweden


BRUSSELS – In May 2022, when the Finnish and Swedish authorities announced their intention to join NATO, a historic change for both countries, there was talk of “quick ratification”.

But the path to membership has been more difficult than originally imagined. This week, Finnish officials traveled to Turkey to try to seal the deal, while Swedish officials stayed home.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a spoiler for the past 10 months. On Friday, he is expected to finally announce that his country will ratify Finland’s membership, which will probably pave the way for the union’s growth.

But Erdogan appears unlikely to sign Sweden’s offer without further action, meaning the Nordic neighbors who promised to join NATO “hand in hand” will not actually join.

For Erdogan, splitting Finland from Sweden appears to be an internal political game – an appeal to nationalist voters as he lags behind his main opponent ahead of the May 14 election.

For NATO, Erdogan’s antics are somewhere between an ill-timed annoyance and a dangerous distraction. NATO insists that both countries eventually join, making the alliance stronger.

But until they do, officials will continue to spend time and energy shuttling between capitals to seal a deal — while Russia wages war.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson seemed to admit this week that Finland will go first. “It is not excluded that Sweden and Finland will ratify at different stages,” he said.

The question now is what happens next. Turkey has been the most important, but not the only one.

Hungary has expressed its support for the membership of Finland and Sweden, but is postponing a parliamentary vote on the issue, leading to speculation that it could use the issue as leverage in its battle with the European Union. However, NATO officials say they are confident Hungary will ratify both offers soon.

Assuming Hungary comes first, Sweden still has to negotiate with Turkey.

Friday’s meeting is the latest twist in an unexpectedly dramatic – and revealing – story.

After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Finland began to rethink its policy of military non-alignment. It forced Sweden to do the same.

How Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine pushed Finland towards NATO

The 30-member alliance welcomed their interest, saying the addition of the two already close partners would strengthen NATO’s position. The membership of Finland and Sweden would bring the full power of the alliance far to the north and strengthen the presence around the Baltic Sea.

After several months of discussion and diplomacy, representatives from both countries officially submitted their bids together in a carefully choreographed display.

“I warmly welcome the requests of Finland and Sweden to join NATO,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference in Brussels on the same day. “You are our closest partners, and your membership in NATO would increase our common security.”

When the cameras stopped rolling, however, Turkey balked at the offers.

Erdogan had shouted that Sweden would grant asylum to members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and hinted that he might pull back. The extent of Turkish resistance seemed to surprise the coalition.

In the weeks that followed, leaders, diplomats and NATO officials worked feverishly to move things forward. Ahead of a NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022, the three countries struck a deal: Turkey agreed to drop its opposition in exchange for concessions on what it calls Kurdish militant groups and weapons.

Turkey did not object to Finland and Sweden joining NATO

“Welcoming Finland and Sweden to the alliance makes them safer, stronger than NATO and safer for the Euro-Atlantic region,” Stoltenberg said at a press conference after the signing ceremony. “This is vital as we face the biggest security crisis in decades.”

As the months went by, it was increasingly clear to Stoltenberg that Finland and Sweden had met Turkey’s demands. Turkey continued to retreat.

In the fall, when Turkey dug in, Helsinki and Stockholm insisted on staying together. “We have taken every step hand in hand and none of us have other goals,” Kristersson said in October.

But Turkey did not back down. And in January, the Finnish foreign minister brought up the idea for the first time without Sweden.

Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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