Turkish president says he will support Finland’s NATO bid
ISTANBUL– Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday his government would move forward with ratifying Finland’s NATO bid, paving the way for the country to join the military bloc ahead of Sweden.
The breakthrough came as Finnish President Sauli Niinisto was in Ankara to meet Erdogan. Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO 10 months ago following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, abandoning decades of non-alignment.
NATO needs the unanimous approval of its existing 30 members to expand, and Turkey and Hungary are the only countries that have yet to ratify the Nordic countries’ bids. The Turkish government has accused Sweden and Finland of being too soft on groups it considers terrorist organizations, but expressed more reservations about Sweden.
“As far as honoring its commitments in the trilateral memorandum of understanding is concerned, we have seen that Finland has taken genuine and concrete steps,” Erdogan told a news conference in Ankara after his meeting with Niinisto. .
“This sensitivity for the security of our country and, based on the progress made in Finland’s NATO accession protocol, we have decided to start the ratification process in our parliament,” the president added. .
With Erdogan’s agreement, Finland’s candidacy can now be submitted to the Turkish parliament, where the president’s party and its allies hold the majority. Ratification is expected before Turkey holds its presidential and legislative elections scheduled for May 14.
Commenting on Turkey’s willingness to consider ratifying Sweden’s NATO membership, Erdogan said it would “depend on the strong steps Sweden takes”.
Explaining the difference between the Nordic countries from Ankara’s perspective, Erdogan claimed that Sweden had “embraced terrorism” and cited demonstrations by supporters of Kurdish militants in the streets of Stockholm. “Such protests do not take place in Finland,” he said. “For this reason, we had to consider (Finland) separately from Sweden.”
Niinisto hailed Turkey’s willingness to follow through on his country’s bid, but also expressed solidarity with its neighbour. “I have the feeling that Finland’s NATO membership is not complete without Sweden,” he said.
Referring to a NATO summit scheduled for July in the Lithuanian capital, Niinisto added: “I would like to see in Vilnius that we will meet the 32-member alliance.”
Turkey, Finland and Sweden signed a memorandum of understanding in June last year to resolve disputes over Nordic states joining.
The document included clauses addressing Ankara’s claims that Stockholm and Helsinki had failed to take its concerns seriously enough about those they considered terrorists, particularly supporters of Kurdish militants who led a 39-year-old insurgency in Turkey and the people Ankara links to a 2016 coup attempt.
A series of separate protests in Stockholm, including a demonstration by an anti-Islam activist who burned the Koran outside the Turkish embassy, also angered Turkish officials.
In Stockholm, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said Ankara’s separate ratification of Finland’s and Sweden’s candidacies was “a development we didn’t want, but it’s something we’re prepared. We respect and will continue to respect the memorandum established between our three countries.
Billstrom stressed that “this is about when Sweden will become a member, not about our security. We are even safer now than before applying for NATO membership.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and lawmakers have promised to ratify the two countries’ applications for NATO membership. But the country’s parliament has repeatedly postponed a ratification vote.
The parliamentary leader of Orban’s Fidesz party said on Friday that a vote on Finland’s membership would take place on March 27. Mate Kocsis said in a Facebook post that lawmakers from Fidesz, which holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, “would vote unanimously in favour.”
Niinisto arrived in Turkey on Thursday and visited areas affected by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 52,000 people in Turkey and Syria last month.
Ahead of Friday’s announcement, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said Sweden hoped for “a quick ratification process” after the elections in Turkey.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the move would strengthen the security of NATO, Finland and Sweden. “The most important thing is that Finland and Sweden quickly become full members of NATO, not that they join at exactly the same time,” he said.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington welcomed Turkey’s move on Finland and encouraged Ankara to ‘quickly ratify’ Sweden’s bid while urging Hungary to complete the ratification process for both countries “without delay”. “Both Sweden and Finland are strong and capable partners who share NATO values and will strengthen the Alliance and contribute to European security,” Sullivan said in a statement.
Turkey’s parliament is due to enter a pre-election recess in three weeks, but an “accelerated process” to approve Finland’s NATO membership was expected, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara.
He predicted a tougher path for Sweden after the election, whether Erdogan is re-elected after 20 years in power or the opposition takes charge.
“While there is now a president who holds a majority in parliament, the next president, whoever he is, is unlikely to have a majority in parliament,” Unluhisarcikli said.
Three political alliances made up of more than a dozen parties are contesting the elections, including an alliance of leftist politicians who tend to be ideologically opposed to NATO.
“Now it is enough to persuade President Erdogan, but several parties will have to be persuaded after the elections,” Unluhisarcikli said.
Jari Tanner in Helsinki and Justin Spike in Budapest, Hungary contributed to this report.