Finnish President Sauli Niinistö appeared ready on Friday to get approval for Helsinki’s NATO membership from Turkey’s counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been holding off planned expansion of the alliance for several months over political disputes with Sweden.
Sweden and Finland had planned to join NATO at the same time, a proposal supported by the US and other key western alliance nations. But with Erdogan still blocking Sweden’s bid, Finland will go ahead alone.
“It was known that once President Erdogan made the decision on his part to ratify Finland’s NATO membership, he would like to meet and fulfill his promise directly from president to president,” Niinistö said in a statement on Wednesday during a trip to Turkey, where he visited areas in the south-east of the country devastated by the February earthquake.
“The Turks hoped that I would be present when they announced this decision,” said the Finnish President. “Of course I accepted the invitation and will be there to receive his declaration of intent.”
In early March, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed an apparent departure from the Alliance’s hopes that Stockholm and Helsinki would be jointly admitted to NATO.
“My goal is for both Sweden and Finland to become full members of NATO as soon as possible,” he said, “at least until the Vilnius summit,” referring to the alliance’s planned meeting in the Lithuanian capital in July.
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson reiterated the outlook this week, telling reporters: “What we’ve noticed over the past few weeks is that there’s been an increase in the likelihood of this happening at different times… Ultimately, it’s not a question of Sweden becoming a member.” NATO will, but when.”
The 30-nation bloc officially invited Sweden and Finland to join the alliance in 2022, just months after Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s “military special operation” triggered an historic shift in political and public opinion towards NATO membership, prompting both nations to abandon their long-held official neutrality.
Only Hungary and Turkey still have to agree to dual accession. Both parliaments have repeatedly delayed the necessary debate and ratification process, although the parliaments in Budapest finally started their discussions in February.
But progress has been slower in Turkey, where presidential and parliamentary elections are imminent and Erdogan’s government is grappling with the aftermath of the earthquake.
Ankara has expressed concern over Swedish and Finnish arms exports to Kurdish groups in Syria, which Turkey considers terrorist organizations, as well as the presence and activism of pro-Kurdish organizations in both countries and those accused of involvement in the failed 2016 Turkish coup . Both Sweden and Finland have accepted some but not all Turkish demands.
Stockholm has angered Erdogan by refusing to extradite Turkish dissidents, with tensions exacerbated by far-right Stockholm protests that have seen a Koran burned. Erdogan then withdrew from the trilateral framework set up to negotiate dual accession. Renewed talks between the three nations at NATO headquarters in Brussels last week brought no breakthrough.
Fatih Ceylan, Turkey’s former representative to NATO, said news week from Ankara that Niinistö will probably return to Finland from his current trip to Turkey with Erdogan’s approval.
“I think that the mood of Finland and Sweden joining NATO has also changed in the Alliance and in the United States,” he said.
“I sincerely believe that today there will be an agreement announced by both presidents that Turkey will probably ratify Finland’s accession protocol by mid-April because the parliament will go on recess for elections in mid-April,” said Ceylan-who is the President of think tank Ankara Policy Center—added.
“As for Sweden, I think we have to wait a while,” he said.
news week has contacted the Swedish Foreign Ministry for comment.
Given the bloc’s long history of cooperation with Sweden and Finland, as well as the well-funded and modern militaries of both nations, NATO allies hoped for a speedy agreement on expanding the alliance. The Madrid summit in July 2022 was touted as a celebration of the two accessions, but such hopes were dashed. Now the Alliance views the Vilnius meeting as a formal celebration of newly enlarged NATO.
In July, the presidential and parliamentary elections planned for mid-May in Turkey will be completed. Erodgan is seeking another term but faces a six-party coalition and growing public anger over the alleged mishandling of February’s earthquake that killed around 46,000 people, alongside more than 7,000 who died across the border in Syria.
Flooding swept through earthquake-hit areas this week, killing at least 16 people, causing severe material damage and compounding challenges faced by those trying to rebuild.
The opposition is led by longtime social democratic politician Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is just ahead of Erdogan in the polls. This week, Ünal Çeviköz – Kılıçdaroğlu’s chief foreign policy adviser – told Politico that a coalition government would not block Swedish-Finnish accession.
“If you take your bilateral problems to a multilateral organization like NATO, you and your country create a kind of polarization with all other NATO members,” he said. “I think Swedish and Finnish membership will increase and strengthen the security of a collective defense organization like NATO.”
said Ceylan news week that a “changing of the guard” would “mean enough time before the Vilnius Summit to complete the ratification of Sweden’s accession protocol to NATO”. Still, he added: “If the same people remain in power, I think they must also address this issue before the Vilnius Summit and at the Vilnius Summit at the latest.”
In fact, Kristersson said this week that he hopes for a “quick ratification process after Turkey’s election.”
All in all, Ceylan said: “I think there are enough concrete reasons to be optimistic”, even if the Finnish and Swedish bids are being forced apart. Although a “miraculous” Turkish endorsement of Sweden’s NATO bid is unlikely before the May elections, “there could be some positive moves,” Ceylan said.