LULEA, Sweden — In a press conference held in northern Sweden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called upon Turkey to promptly take action on Sweden’s bid to join NATO. Blinken emphasized the urgency of strengthening the transatlantic alliance in the face of escalating tensions with Russia.
Blinken praised the robustness of the Swedish armed forces and the country’s longstanding partnership with NATO, even before becoming a candidate for membership last year. While neighboring Finland’s accession to NATO was solidified this spring, Turkey and Hungary have yet to ratify Sweden’s membership, causing unnecessary delays.
“We eagerly await the finalization of this process. We urge both Turkey and Hungary, who have not yet ratified, to expedite their accession as soon as possible,” Blinken stated, using Turkey’s official name. “There is no justification for further delay; Sweden is fully prepared. The time to act is now.”
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, who joined Blinken at the press conference, emphasized that Stockholm has taken significant steps to address Turkish concerns regarding the handling of individuals perceived as Kurdish militants by Ankara. Kristersson highlighted an upcoming anti-terrorism law, effective from June 1, along with amendments to Sweden’s constitution and the lifting of an informal arms sales embargo on Turkey.
The accession process for militarily proficient Finland and Sweden, which many NATO officials hoped would send a strong signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin amidst the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, has encountered substantial delays, exposing differences among alliance members and the potential for a few holdouts to obstruct widely supported decisions.
Recent months have seen hopes among NATO officials that Turkey would ratify Sweden’s accession, especially following the completion of elections resulting in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election for another five-year term. U.S. officials have indicated that they expect Hungary to ratify once Turkey sets the precedent.
The future composition of NATO will be a key topic of discussion when alliance foreign ministers convene this week in neighboring Norway. As the bloc grapples with managing what many members perceive as a significant threat from Russia and as the United States and others advocate for a greater focus on China, the issue of Sweden’s membership remains critical.
The deepening economic and military ties between Turkey and Russia have strained relations with the United States, despite Washington’s acknowledgment of Erdogan’s role in brokering agreements on Ukrainian grain exports and facilitating exchanges of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners.
Blinken and Kristersson delivered their remarks in the industrial city of Lulea, where the Swedish leader hosted U.S. and European Union officials for discussions on trade and technology. This followed President Biden’s apparent linkage of Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s NATO membership with a proposed deal to upgrade Ankara’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets.
During a call with Erdogan to congratulate him on his re-election, Biden expressed his desire to work on an agreement regarding the F-16s, stating, “I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden, so let’s get that done.”
When asked about Turkey’s response to Sweden’s NATO bid, Biden stated, “I raised that issue with him. We’re going to talk more about it next week.”
Blinken clarified that the U.S. administration had not linked its support for Sweden’s NATO membership to the potential F-16 deal with Turkey. However, he acknowledged that some members of the U.S. Congress had explicitly made this connection, suggesting that they would support the proposed F-16 deal only if Turkey relented on Sweden’s membership.
“With regard to Sweden’s accession and the F-16s, these are separate matters. However, both are crucial, in our view, for European security,” Blinken explained.
The specific factors that could persuade key lawmakers, such as Senator Robert Menendez, to reconsider their opposition to the Biden administration’s proposed F-16 deal remain unclear. Senator Menendez has also called for Turkey to improve its human rights record and address its relationship with Greece.
Following his media remarks, Secretary Blinken had a conversation with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. The State Department issued a statement confirming that Blinken congratulated Erdogan on his re-election and “reiterated his strong belief that Sweden is ready to join the alliance now.”
While Blinken urged swift action, he also acknowledged Turkey’s security concerns and emphasized the importance of every NATO member having a say in the expansion of the alliance. He underscored the solemn commitment made by each member to come to the defense of others if they face aggression, referencing NATO’s mutual defense clause.
Prime Minister Kristersson echoed Sweden’s desire to join NATO but refrained from making demands, acknowledging that the decision ultimately lies with Turkey. He stated, “We have always recognized the fact that every NATO ally has to make its own decision, and only Turkiye can make Turkish decisions, and we fully respect that. So that’s basically it. And now we wait for them to make a decision.”
The topic of NATO’s future composition will be a central focus during the upcoming meeting of alliance foreign ministers in Norway. As NATO seeks to address the acute threat from Russia, while also facing pressure to prioritize its approach to China, the inclusion of Sweden remains a significant consideration.
In conclusion, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call for Turkey to take immediate action on Sweden’s NATO membership highlights the urgency of strengthening the transatlantic alliance amid heightened tensions with Russia. Sweden, with its robust armed forces and history of partnership with NATO, eagerly awaits ratification. The delays in the accession process underscore the challenges of consensus-building within the alliance. The decision now rests with Turkey, as NATO seeks to shape its future composition and address pressing security concerns.