Why is Turkey finally getting behind Sweden’s bid to join NATO?

Sweden edged closer toward joining NATO on Tuesday after the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee greenlit a protocol for the Nordic country’s accession to the military alliance.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dropped his objection to Sweden’s membership during a NATO summit in July, but it took him several months to send the bill to parliament for ratification and weeks for the parliamentary committee to give its consent.

The long-delayed protocol now needs to be approved by the full general assembly and it remains to be seen how quickly the issue will be taken up by the floor.

Sweden and Finland abandoned their decades-long neutrality and sought membership in NATO amid heightened security concerns following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

Finland became NATO’s 31st member earlier this year, after Turkey’s parliament ratified its bid.

Why the delay?

Turkey’s opposition to Swedish membership in NATO stemmed from its belief that the Nordic country has been too soft toward supporters of Kurdish militants and other groups in Sweden that Ankara views as security threats.

These include people associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, which has waged a 39-year insurgency in Turkey and people with alleged links to a coup attempt in 2016 against Erdoğan. Others are critics of the Turkish leader. 

Some observers have warned giving in to Ankara’s demands could undermine Sweden’s sovereignty, as well as the rights of those Erdoğan wants extradited to Turkey. 

Turkey, Sweden and Finland reached an agreement last year to tackle Ankara’s security concerns and Stockholm subsequently took steps to tighten its anti-terrorism laws, making support for extremist organisations punishable by up to eight years in prison.

But a series of anti-Turkey and anti-Islam protests in Stockholm, some of which involved the burning of the Quran, angered Erdoğan’s government and the Turkish public.

While the demonstrations were condemned by the Swedish government, Turkey criticised Sweden – which has strict laws protecting free speech – for allowing displays of anti-Muslim sentiment.

What’s changed?

While Sweden strengthened its antiterrorism laws to address Ankara’s security concerns, NATO agreed to establish a special coordinator for counterterrorism and appointed Assistant Secretary-General Tom Goffus to the position.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at the alliance’s summit in July that Sweden had agreed “to support actively the efforts to reinvigorate Turkey’s EU accession process.” 

Stockholm announced it would seek improved customs arrangements and take steps to implement visa-free European travel for Turkish citizens.

Turkey’s EU membership talks came to a standstill in 2018 because of the country’s democratic backsliding and poor record on human rights.

Earlier this month, Erdoğan openly linked Sweden’s NATO membership to Ankara’s efforts to purchase US-made F-16 fighter jets. He also called on Canada and other NATO allies to lift arms embargoes on Turkey.

Some Western states banned arms exports to Turkey in 2019, following its military incursion into northern Syria against Kurdish militias. 

During Tuesday’s debate at the parliamentary committee, opposition legislator Oguz Kaan Salici questioned whether the government had received assurances from the United States concerning the sale of the F-16s.

US President Joe Biden’s administration backs Turkey’s F-16 request, but many in the US Congress strongly oppose selling arms to Turkey, which wants to buy 40 new F-16 fighter jets and modernisation kits for its existing fleet.

What happens next?

The approval by the parliamentary committee paves the way for Sweden’s accession protocol to be debated and ratified by the general assembly. It would then have to be signed off by Erdoğan to come into effect.

It was not clear when the full assembly would debate the bill.

Erdoğan’s ruling AK party and its allies command a majority in the 600-seat parliament. 

However, the Turkish president has said the decision rests with lawmakers. His ruling party’s nationalist allies remain uneasy with Sweden’s membership and accuse NATO members of indifference toward the PKK threat to Turkey.

This week, Kurdish militants attempted to infiltrate a Turkish base in northern Iraq, killing 12 soldiers in two days of clashes.

Islamist parties, frustrated by what they perceive to be Western nations’ silence toward Israel’s military actions in Gaza, may vote against the bill.

The Hungarian factor

Hungary, the only other NATO holdout on Sweden, has not announced when the country’s ratification may occur.

Hungary’s governing Fidesz party – led by populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is widely considered one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s only allies in the EU – has stalled Sweden’s NATO bid since July 2022, alleging that Swedish politicians have told “blatant lies” about the condition of Hungary’s democracy.

Yet neither Orbán nor his senior officials have indicated what kind of redress they require from Stockholm to allay their reservations over Sweden joining the military alliance.

Some critics have alleged that Hungary is using its potential veto power over Sweden’s accession as a tool to leverage concessions from the European Union, which has frozen billions in funds to Budapest over concerns over minority rights and the rule of law.

Hungarian officials have said repeatedly that their country will not be the last NATO member to endorse Sweden’s bid. But Ankara’s move toward ratification suggests that the time for further holdups may be running out.

Some opposition politicians in Hungary – who have argued for immediate approval of Sweden’s bid – believe that Orbán’s party is following Ankara’s timetable and will vote to approve once it seems clear that Turkey will imminently do the same.

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