President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan holding a press conference during the NATO Summit at the IFEMA congress centre in Madrid, Spain, on June 30, 2022. Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images
President Erdoğan is blocking the quick membership addition of Sweden and Finland to the alliance.
This July, NATO will meet for a key summit in Lithuania, a chance to get leaders together and showcase the alliance’s strength and renewed sense of purpose against the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine. And NATO wants to do this in one very specific way: by welcoming two longtime holdouts, Sweden and Finland, into NATO.
Except right now, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan is threatening to spoil it all.
Erdoğan, specifically, is raising new objections to the ascension of Finland and especially Sweden over what Turkey perceives as the latter’s lax policies toward Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and other groups that Turkey deems terrorist organizations. Most recently, Erdoğan has used a far-right politician’s burning of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm to harden his opposition to Sweden’s NATO bid.
All NATO members must approve new ones, so Erdoğan’s opposition is effectively a veto. The Turkish president is not alone in declining support— Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is also holding out, for now — but Erdoğan is seen as the more legitimate roadblock. Erdoğan is flexing his foreign policy power and influence, and seeking to improve his domestic political position, especially ahead of difficult elections this May.
“Erdoğan thinks Turkey has leverage. Erdoğan thinks Turkey has justifiable grievances about Sweden’s policies. Erdoğan thinks he has an opportunity to use that leverage to address those grievances in a way that would be good for Turkey’s national interests. And, in addition to all of that, the entire issue is good for Erdoğan politically,” said Nicholas Danforth, editor at War on the Rocks and nonresident senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.
Given all that, it’s not really surprising this spat over the Nordic countries’ NATO membership is dragging out. But this is also really not how the script was supposed to go — at least according to most of the rest of NATO.
What Turkey says it’s objecting to and why
Sweden and Finland announced last year they would seek to join NATO, a historic reversal for two countries that have remained militarily non-aligned. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed their calculus, especially in Finland, which shares a border with Russia and has the memory of its own invasion by the country. Both are strong European democracies, and both have modern militaries that were already closely cooperating with NATO, so ascension was expected to be relatively uncontroversial and quick, unlike some other recent bids, which elicited a lot more criticism about the risks of NATO expansionism. Perhaps most importantly, the timing of their applications represented a strategic and symbolic win for an alliance invigorated and united against Russian aggression.
But Turkey quickly complicated things, with Erdoğan saying the country would not back the Finnish and Swedish bids. Turkey objected to what it saw as both countries’ — but especially Sweden’s — support or role as a safe haven for the PKK, and other networks Turkey has deemed terrorist groups. Sweden has traditionally taken in many Kurdish refugees, but Turkey sees Sweden as providing a refuge for organizing and financing anti-Turkish activities. The PKK has staged terrorist attacks in Turkey (it is designated as a terrorist organization by the US and European Union), but Erdoğan has also arbitrarily cracked down on Kurdish groups and other opposition members of civil society. Erdoğan also objected to the countries’ arms embargoes on Turkey, which were put in place after Turkey invaded Syria in 2019.
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By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter