Turkey’s parliament foreign affairs committee voted to approve Sweden’s application to join NATO on Tuesday, marking a pivotal turning point after months of tensions and negotiations between the two countries.
Background on Sweden’s NATO Bid
Sweden and neighboring Finland submitted formal requests to join NATO in May 2022, abandoning decades of military non-alignment in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All 30 NATO members need to approve any expansion of the Western military alliance.
While most member states rapidly ratified the Nordic countries’ bids, NATO aspirant Turkey raised objections. Ankara accused the two countries – and especially Sweden – of harboring members of groups it deems terrorists, including Kurdish militants and supporters of a U.S.-based Muslim cleric blamed for a 2016 coup attempt.
This led to a months-long impasse, with Turkey delaying the start of accession talks. The breakthrough came in June 2022 at a NATO summit in Madrid, where Turkey agreed to lift its veto in exchange for counterterrorism concessions. Finland and Sweden signed a three-way agreement with Turkey, vowing to address its security concerns and lift arms embargoes.
Parliament Committee Approval – What Does This Mean?
The Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee vote on December 27 opens the way for a final full parliamentary vote to approve Sweden’s NATO request, expected early 2023.
While Tuesday’s vote is not the final hurdle, it represents tangible progress after months in limbo. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party and allies dominate parliament, suggesting the final NATO approval vote will also pass.
|Parliament Committee Approval
|Full Parliament Approval
|Approved early October 2022
|Approved late October 2022
|All NATO states ratified by July 2022
|Approved December 27, 2022
|Expected early 2023
|Awaiting full Turkish parliament approval
“This was very good news,” Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said on Wednesday, adding that Stockholm was fulfilling its commitments to Turkey under last summer’s trilateral memo. “We look forward to continuing our cooperation with Turkey in the NATO context.”
What Has Sweden Done to Secure Turkey’s Approval?
Under the terms of its deal, Sweden vowed to take concrete steps to address Turkey’s concerns. This included:
- Tightening counter-terrorism laws
- Blocking arms exports that could be used against Turkey
- Increasing cooperation with Turkey in battling groups Ankara sees as security threats
After signing the Madrid trilateral deal, Sweden did act to meet promises made to Turkey:
Law changes: New anti-terror laws entered into force on January 1, 2023 after approval by the Swedish parliament in December 2022. These expand authorities’ abilities to fight terrorism.
Arms embargoes: Sweden has imposed restrictions on defense material exports to Turkey since 2019 over Ankara’s military operation in Syria. While it has not fully lifted these weapons trade bans, Stockholm said it made concessions and assured Turkey these were not aimed against Ankara.
Extradition of terror suspects: While declining Turkey’s requests for extraditions due to jurisprudence norms, Sweden has frozen assets, restricted entry and launched criminal investigations against individuals wanted by Turkey. This aims to address Ankara’s concerns regarding exiled political opponents.
Enhanced cooperation: Teams from Sweden’s police authority and secret service visited Turkey in October 2022 for meetings on counter-terrorism. Sweden says further deepening cooperation with Turkey is a key priority.
What Comes Next? Will Other NATO Members Also Need to Approve?
The full plenary session of Turkey’s 600-seat parliament is expected to hold its final vote approving Sweden early 2023, according to officials. Ratification in parliament – controlled by Erdogan’s ruling AKP party and its nationalist allies – is largely seen as a formality.
Finland and Sweden had hoped to join NATO simultaneously, but Turkey’s demands focused mostly on Sweden. Now Finland is already safely within NATO’s fold, while Sweden anxiously awaits full approval.
Following parliament’s go-ahead, Turkish President Erdogan will have final say on ratifying Sweden’s accession. If all goes smoothly, this could lead the way for Sweden to accede to NATO in the first half of 2023.
The accession document would then be signed by all allies and submitted to their national parliaments for individual ratification. Barring any last minute objections, the path appears cleared for Sweden to join NATO likely by mid-2023.
What Role Has the US Played to Influence Turkey Over This Dispute?
The United States has played an active mediating role over the past months to unblock Sweden and Finland’s stalled bid to join NATO – seen as crucial to bolstering Alliance solidarity and security in light of Russia’s ongoing attack against Ukraine.
Behind the scenes, Washington prodded Ankara, Stockholm and Helsinki to make compromises during months of trilateral talks leading up to the Madrid breakthrough and commitment from Turkey to lift its veto.
The White House has also linked Turkey’s demands over Sweden’s NATO bid directly to a separate Turkish request for U.S. approval to buy advanced F-16 fighter jets – an incentive package that has now further borne fruit in securing Ankara’s backing.
Earlier in December 2022, the U.S. House and Senate Armed Services Committees cleared the way for the potential sale of F-16s to NATO ally Turkey after months of delay.
This week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made clear these issues were directly tied for Ankara: “As long as promises made to us are not fulfilled, we will not submit the Sweden memorandum to our Great National Assembly.”
What Are the Main Remaining Risks or Potential Roadblocks?
With the end now in sight for Sweden’s long-stalled NATO bid, Turkish officials caution risks remain if Sweden backslides on counterterrorism promises.
“Sweden’s NATO membership could still run into trouble if Stockholm does not keep up its promises to Ankara to crack down on the PKK Kurdish militant groups,” a senior Turkish official warned.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is considered terrorists by Turkey, the European Union and the United States. Turkish state media suggest Sweden has continued to allow PKK sympathizers to fundraise and recruit even after inking its deal with Turkey.
Ultimately further progress hinges on sustained Swedish cooperation with Turkey on extraditions, terror financing and demonstrations. Lawmakers also cautioned this week the F-16 sale is essential to finalizing Sweden’s accession.
While complications could still arise, momentum is clearly now on Sweden’s side as all NATO allies strongly support its ambitions to joint the alliance with Finland. Continuous compromises and displays of good faith cooperation are likely to carry Sweden across the finish line.
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