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Turkey Opens Doors For Sweden In NATO

In a surprising turn of events, Turkey has finally agreed to back Sweden’s NATO bid. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made the announcement on Monday, July 10 from Vilnius, where the alliance was preparing to hold its annual summit on July 11 and 12. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to forward Sweden’s membership bid to Turkey’s parliament after holding talks with Stoltenberg and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. Erdogan’s approval, after having blocked Sweden’s proposal for over a year, brings much relief to the Scandinavian country. “This is an historic step which makes all NATO Allies stronger & safer,” Stoltenberg wrote in a tweet


The outcome of the high-stakes negotiations is also being considered by many as a significant victory for Swedish PM Kristersson, who assumed office less than a year ago. Though the decision to join NATO and the initial application was made by his predecessor Magdalena Andersson – now Leader of the Opposition – Kristersson played an active role by prioritising attainment of the NATO membership since taking over in October 2022. 


A press statement released by NATO outlined Turkey and Sweden’s combined efforts to tackle terrorism, promote defence trade, and increase economic cooperation through the Türkiye-Sweden Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETCO).


Hungary remains the sole NATO member yet to grant approval for Sweden's bid to join the alliance. However, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto made it clear that if Turkey changes its stance, Hungary will not impede Sweden's accession into NATO. 


Sweden applied for NATO membership along with neighbour and close ally Finland last year in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both countries abandoned their longstanding stance of nonalignment and publicly declared their intention to seek membership in the military alliance. 


However, Erdogan strongly voiced his opposition to their membership bids, raising objections particularly against Sweden for its perceived support to groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU, and the United States of America. According to NATO protocols, any prospective country seeking membership must have the approval of all member nations. Therefore, Erdogan's objection posed a significant obstacle to Sweden and Finland’s accession. These obstacles appeared to be overcome when Turkey, Sweden, and Finland signed the Trilateral Memorandum at the NATO Summit in Madrid last year. However, the optimism was short-lived. Although Finland’s membership was approved in April, the Turkish leader remained steadfast in blocking Sweden’s entry to NATO, claiming that Stockholm had still not taken enough measures to prevent pro-Kurdish activists. 


Tensions further escalated following a recent incident involving the burning of the Quran outside a mosque in Stockholm on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, one of the major festivals in Islam, as the desecration of the Holy Book was carried out during a protest authorised by police officials. Apart from receiving widespread anger and condemnation, the incident further worsened Sweden and Turkey’s fragile relationship, with Ankara regarding the act as Islamophobic rather than an assertion of Freedom of Speech. 


Sweden attempted to persuade Turkey by introducing stricter anti-terrorism laws, by virtue of which providing financial or logistical support to terrorist organisations would be deemed unlawful. Notably, the new legislation was effectively enforced for the first time barely a week after the Quran-burning incident, when the Stockholm district court sentenced Yahya Gungor, a 41-year-old Kurdish man to four years and six months in prison for multiple crimes including attempted funding of terrorism. Stockholm hoped Ankara would recognise its efforts in combatting terrorism and pro-Kurdish elements and would lift its veto ahead of the Vilnius summit. However, Erdogan added a new twist to the tale on the eve of the summit when he linked Sweden’s NATO membership with Turkey’s EU accession. “Turkey has been waiting at the gate of the European Union for over 50 years now,” he said, and “almost all NATO member countries are European member countries.”


Turkey had applied for membership to the European Economic Community – an institutional predecessor of the EU – in 1987 and was given the status of a candidate country at the 1999 Helsinki Summit. Accession negotiations commenced in 2005 but were suspended by the EU in 2016 over concerns about human rights violations in Turkey. Erdogan’s out-of-the-blue demand took everyone by surprise, particularly since it appeared to further reduce the chances of Sweden securing NATO membership anytime soon. 


However, all apprehension was put to rest on Monday as Erdogan and Kristersson finally brokered a deal in the presence of Stoltenberg, opening the doors for Sweden as the 32nd member of the military alliance. 



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