Turkey Approves Sweden NATO Bid, Leaving Hungary as Holdout

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(Bloomberg) -- Turkey’s parliament approved Sweden’s accession to NATO after months of deliberations, leaving Hungary as the lone holdout to the defense alliance’s northern enlargement.

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The parliament plenary in Ankara voted 287 to 55 to accept Sweden’s application on Tuesday, sending the document back to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a final signoff before it can be deposited with the US State Department in Washington. Erdogan has already backed Sweden’s membership and is widely expected to sign.

The move puts Sweden on the cusp of realizing its goal of becoming the 32nd member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a year and eight months after putting in an application that marked a turnaround in its defense policy. Moving in lockstep with neighboring Finland, Stockholm concluded in May 2022 that entering the alliance would be the best way to deter any aggression from Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Finland joined NATO in April.

“I welcome the vote by the Grand National Assembly of Turkiye to ratify Sweden’s membership in NATO,” said Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General. “I also count on Hungary to complete its national ratification as soon as possible.”

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement that Sweden’s membership is a priority for President Joe Biden and that “joining NATO is in the national security interests of the United States, and will make the alliance safer and stronger.”

Sweden’s entry would bolster NATO, reinforcing its northern reach and improving its ability to defend the eastern flank. Sweden and Finland had previously shunned membership of military alliances, until Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military actions changed that calculus. Jeff Flake, US Ambassador to Turkey, hailed the vote in a message posted on X as “great move for Sweden, Turkiye and all of NATO.”

“Today we are one step closer to becoming a full member of NATO,” Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said in a post on X. “Positive that the Grand General Assembly of Turkiye has voted in favour of Sweden’s NATO accession.”

Read More: What It Takes to Join NATO, a Club Refreshed by Putin: QuickTake

Turkey had dragged its feet on agreeing to Sweden’s proposal, which has to be signed off by all members. Ankara spent months insisting the Nordic country do more to crack down on supporters of separatist groups outlawed in Turkey, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is designated a terrorist organization by the European Union and the US.

Sweden’s response was that it complied with NATO’s own membership criteria, but separately tightened laws against terrorism and lifted arms export restrictions to Turkey.

Hungary Moves

In another sign of potential progress for Sweden’s membership, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in a post on X, he invited Swedish counterpart Ulf Kristersson to Budapest for negotiations on the NATO bid.

Orban and his ministers have partly blamed Swedish criticism of Hungary’s democratic backsliding as one reason for not moving ahead with ratification in parliament. Hungary’s government has also said a courtesy call by Sweden’s leader to mend frayed ties could help to unblock the process.

Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom told reporters there is “no reason to negotiate” with the Hungarian government, though “the central thing for us is to continue to have a good and constructive dialogue with Budapest.” In a letter dated Jan. 23, seen by Bloomberg, Orban invited Kristersson to Hungary “to exchange views on all issues of common interest.” It is not clear if he will accept.

Complex Web

Alongside Turkey’s issue with separatist groups in Sweden, the country’s deliberations were tangled in a more complex geopolitical web involving fighter planes.

Turkey has since 2021 sought to buy 40 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16 Block 70 aircraft from the US company and 79 kits to modernize its fleet. The country is overdue to retire its F-4 jets and wants to upgrade F-16s as a stopgap measure until it can develop its own warplanes.

Biden has made Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s NATO membership a prerequisite for the sale of those jets, and Erdogan has also linked the two issues. Turkey is now likely to expect the US to move forward with the aircraft sale.

--With assistance from Zoltan Simon, Niclas Rolander, Natalia Drozdiak and Justin Sink.

(Updates with US statement in fifth paragraph.)

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