Sweden is one step closer to becoming the 32nd member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) after Turkey’s parliament approved its membership protocol on Tuesday. Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, had been blocking Sweden’s bid for more than a year, accusing it of hosting Kurdish militants and being too soft on Russia.
Turkey’s change of heart
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his decision to support Sweden’s NATO membership after meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Monday. Erdogan said he would forward the protocol to the Turkish parliament and “ensure ratification”.
The move came as a surprise, as Turkey had previously linked its approval of Sweden’s membership to the European Union’s (EU) re-opening of accession talks with Ankara, which have been stalled since 2016. Turkey also demanded that Sweden amend its constitution, change its laws, expand its counter-terrorism operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and resume arms exports to Turkey.
However, according to NATO’s statement, Turkey and Sweden had addressed “Turkey’s legitimate security concerns” and agreed to cooperate on various issues, including the modernization of the EU-Turkey customs union, visa liberalization, and the resolution of the Cyprus dispute. Sweden also pledged to actively support Turkey’s EU accession process and to enhance its defense and deterrence capabilities in the Baltic region.
Sweden’s strategic choice
Sweden, along with its neighbor Finland, had long been considered as militarily neutral countries in Europe, maintaining good relations with both NATO and Russia. However, Sweden’s security environment changed dramatically after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Sweden also faced increased Russian air and naval activities in the Baltic Sea, as well as cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns.
In May 2023, Sweden and Finland announced their intention to join NATO, citing the need to strengthen their security and stability in the face of growing threats and challenges. Finland formally joined the alliance in April 2024, after receiving unanimous approval from all NATO members. Sweden’s membership, however, was delayed by Turkey’s veto, as well as by domestic opposition from some political parties and public opinion.
Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson hailed Turkey’s approval as a “good day for Sweden” and thanked President Erdogan for his constructive dialogue. He said that Sweden’s NATO membership would not only enhance its own security, but also contribute to the collective defense and solidarity of the alliance. He also stressed that Sweden would remain committed to dialogue and cooperation with Russia, as well as to the preservation of the rules-based international order.
NATO’s welcome message
NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Turkey’s decision as a “historic step” and praised the leadership and vision of both Erdogan and Kristersson. He said that Sweden’s membership would strengthen the transatlantic bond and the security of the Euro-Atlantic area. He also expressed his hope that the Turkish parliament would ratify the protocol as soon as possible, so that Sweden could join the alliance without further delay.
NATO’s leaders also congratulated Sweden on its progress and expressed their support for its membership. US President Joe Biden said he looked forward to welcoming Sweden as the 32nd NATO ally and working with Turkey on enhancing defense and deterrence in the region. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said that at 32, NATO would be safer together. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that Sweden joining would make them all safer.
Hungary is currently the only NATO member that has not yet ratified Sweden’s membership protocol. However, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on Tuesday that ratification was now “only a technical question” and that Hungary had no objections to Sweden’s accession. He said that Hungary would complete the ratification process in the coming weeks.