NATO membership is the number one agenda item for the 2023 annual NATO summit. It was going to be all about welcoming the alliance’s newest partner, Sweden. Though it looked dicey, delegates to the gathering saw the main obstacle to the country’s membership removed before the opening bell. Leading up to the meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, Turkey adamantly opposed Sweden, maintaining that the Stockholm government had not taken a strong enough counter-terrorism stand. Translated, Swedish authorities had not acceded to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s demands that they crack down on and extradite Kurdish militants living in Sweden. However, the government did pass a more stringent anti-terrorism law which went into effect on June 1. Nevertheless, Turkey looked to be firm in preventing Sweden’s entry into NATO – right up until the day before the Vilnius event was to start.
Sweden Gets Nod for NATO Membership
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted, “Glad to announce that after the meeting I hosted with @RTErdogan & @SwedishPM, President Erdogan has agreed to forward #Sweden’s accession protocol to the Grand National Assembly ASAP & ensure ratification. This is an historic step which makes all #NATO Allies stronger & safer,” The general secretary can be justifiably pleased with this announcement, for his persistent, patient leadership in negotiations was in no small way responsible for this outcome. Yet Turkey finally agreeing to drop its objection was not drama-free.
A short time before Erdogan’s concession to back Sweden’s NATO membership, Turkey’s president threw a curve ball into the negotiations. “First, clear the way for Turkey in the European Union, then we will clear the way for Sweden as we did for Finland,” Erdogan told reporters before traveling to the summit, The New York Times reported. Since it applied in 1987, Turkey has been attempting membership in the EU with little or no progress.
Turkey Bargains for EU Partnership
Several roadblocks have been in the way of Turkey’s membership in the EU over the years: meeting economic requirements, Turkey’s periodic conflicts with Greece, Turkey’s occupation of Cyprus, and, most recently, what the EU authorities see as Erdogan’s hardline, anti-democratic policies. “The European Commission is critical of the increasingly authoritarian rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan … EU leaders strongly criticized Turkey’s threatening gestures toward member states Greece and Cyprus through repeated territorial violations by the air force and navy,” Bernd Riegert wrote in the German media outlet Deutsche Welle. As it stands, these concerns by EU member nations seem intransigent.
But nothing is over till it’s over, to borrow from Yogi Berra. All may not be lost in Ankara’s quest for the elusive EU club card. Turkey’s turnabout to support Sweden’s inclusion in the Western alliance is not without its quid pro quo. Press reports revealed that Sweden agreed to help the Ankara government with its struggle to become an EU member. Having a current member as an advocate does not assure a place at the EU table, but it can’t hurt. There was another win for Turkey. Forty F-16 Fighting Falcons and associated modernization kits were part of the deal. As is always the case where more than one country is involved, agreements get complicated. As the Associated Press explained:
“The Biden administration has backed Turkey’s desire to buy 40 new F-16s as well as modernization kits from the US. It’s a move some in Congress, most notably Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ), have opposed over Turkey blocking NATO membership for Sweden, its human rights record, its relations with Greece and other concerns.”
One of Menendez’ objections is now moot, and “there may be a way forward,” the senator said. So, with the White House firmly in favor of transferring the US fighters to Turkey, it’s a cautious win-win. Only one other step is necessary for Turkey to fully support Sweden’s NATO membership. The Turkish parliament must ratify the NATO accession protocol, but with Erdogan’s recent landslide victory in the Turkish national election, most believe ratification will be a pro-forma gesture.
NATO Now a Little Safer
Hungary was the only previously declared holdout, claiming opposition to Sweden’s NATO membership. But the Hungarian government has let it be known it will follow Turkey’s lead and not stand in the way of the pending 32nd NATO member. Many NATO leaders have been working behind the scenes to bring both Finland and Sweden into the alliance, but the single most influential individual to ice the deal is not in NATO. With his brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear that none of his neighbors are secure. With Finland and now Sweden making up a bulwark against the Russian Bear, NATO countries are a little safer. Putin achieved precisely what he had railed against.
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