US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday that it’s important that Turkey will decide to allow Sweden into NATO “sooner versus later”, saying he “feels confident” it will happen before the alliance summit in Lithuania July.
His optimism is shared by Swedish Defence Minister Pål Jonson, who said he hopes his country will be allowed into the alliance by the summer. He added that Sweden feels more secure with the additional US military exercises and involvement with the nation.
“We look forward to continuing to advocate for your swift admission to NATO, and we’ll work hard to get that done before the summit,” Austin said on Wednesday. The US Defense Secretary added that Sweden joining NATO will make the alliance stronger and the continent more secure at a crucial time for European security.
“It’s important to all of us that they make the decision sooner versus later,” he said.
Austin and Jonson were speaking to reporters near the docks at the Musko Naval Base, where the US official observed Swedish Marines on small combat boats conducting an amphibious landing exercise. His was the first visit by a US defence chief since 2000, when then-secretary William Cohen visited the country.
Sweden’s bid to join NATO has been stalling because of Turkey and Hungary’s opposition, while Finland — who asked to join the alliance at the same time as the neighbouring Scandinavian country in May last year — formally became NATO’s newest member on 5 April, only days after Turkey and Hungary ratified Helsinki’s application.
A unanimous vote of all 31 NATO members is required to admit new members, a rule which is now impeding Sweden to join the alliance. Turkey accuses the country of being too soft on groups that it deems to be terrorist organisations. The country’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Ankara needs further assurances before it will give its final approval to Sweden’s bid.
The US agreed on Monday to sell Turkey $259 million in software it has long sought to upgrade its fleet of US F-16 fighter jets. But Turkey also still wants to buy 40 new F-16s from the U.S. — a sale opposed by some in Congress who want to wait until Turkey approves Sweden’s membership in NATO.
It’s unclear whether the sale will be enough incentive to sway Ankara towards approving Sweden’s bid to join the alliance.