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Will Sweden Actually be Admitted Into NATO?

If President Erdogan wanted to ratify Sweden’s accession, he could convene the Turkish parliament within a matter of days for a special session.

JAS 39 from Sweden. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
JAS 39 from Sweden. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Will Sweden actually be admitted into NATO? Maybe. 

At NATO’s annual summit in Vilnius, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced “President Erdogan ha[d] agreed to forward Sweden’s accession protocol to the Grand National Assembly ASAP and ensure ratification.” 

Hours later, Erdogan dampened expectations by drawing attention to the fact that the Turkish parliament was on recess and would not convene until October! Is this a repeat of last summer’s Madrid summit, when NATO members believed that Turkey would not raise any further objections to Finland and Sweden both joining, only to be let down by an increasing number of demands by Ankara

What Does Turkey Get?

This is a distinct possibility. If President Erdogan wanted to ratify Sweden’s accession, he could convene the Turkish parliament within a matter of days for a special session. The fact that he chooses not to do this suggests that he may try to leverage more concessions from the United States. This is what Erdogan’s game has always been about: to get what he wants from Washington – (new F-16 fighter jets), or hold up NATO expansion. Officially, Sweden’s accession to NATO and Turkey’s desire to acquire new F-16 fighter jets from America are not related. In practical terms, however, this has always been the sticking point: a quid pro quo

The Biden administration has been giving private assurances to Erdogan that if he fulfills his NATO obligation to welcome Sweden, then they would do their best to convince the U.S. Congress to approve F-16 sales to Turkey. This standoff has now been going on for twelve months. Of course, Erdogan could have signed off on this months ago, but he chose to keep the issue lingering, mainly as an election stunt. The more Sweden tried to satisfy a barrage of demands, loosely masquerading as Turkey’s “security concerns”, the more Erdogan told Turkish voters that he would only admit Sweden if and when Stockholm stopped aiding and abetting “Kurdish terrorists” and ban the burning of Qurans in Stockholm. Washington, desperate to conclude NATO’s most critical expansion in decades, agreed to humor Erdogan until the end of Turkey’s elections in late May. Since this time, the Biden team has turned up the heat on Erdogan. 

NATO Summit 

The Vilnius summit seemed to have resulted in a breakthrough. Or did it? What is holding up Erdogan from simply convening the Turkish parliament to finish the job of Swedish admission? The likeliest explanation is that Erdogan wants assurances from Congress that the F-16 sale will be approved once ratification is concluded. This is tricky as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, is on record for holding up the jet sale. For him, the acceptance of Sweden is a necessary but insufficient condition for approving F-16 sales to Turkey. In addition, he has demanded assurances from Turkey to stop antagonizing countries such as Greece and Cyprus, and for Ankara to step up its cooperation in international sanctions against Putin’s Russia, which Erdogan has long shied away from. So, the sticking point seems to be, who will put up first: Ankara or Washington? 

Whatever results from this high-stakes drama, Turkey will come out as a clear loser-even if it gets its F-16 jets. Erdogan’s delay of Swedish accession is widely perceived to be extortion. Alliance members are beleaguered by Ankara’s less than constructive attitude to solidify a major security initiative in the face of an acute threat posed by Vladimir Putin. The notion of trust for what was once an exemplary actor inside of NATO has all but disappeared. 

This may not mean much in the immediate term. But it will when it comes to Turkey’s negotiations with the European Union (EU). Both Sweden and Finland are members of the EU and after how Ankara treated them over their NATO accession process, it would be surprising if they would back Ankara’s EU bid, which currently exists in name only. Erdogan may be fine with this, as he is not serious about Turkey’s defunct accession process to the EU anytime soon. He does, however, care about re-negotiating Turkey’s existing Customs Union agreement and ensuring visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the Schengen area. 

Not only are these two asks not likely to be realized in the near future, but Ankara is actually lucky. It’s lucky because Brussels lacks the courage to terminate Turkey’s accession process now, after years of breaching the bare minimum of what it means to be an accession-seeking country to the block. By holding hostage the Scandinavian expansion of NATO, Erdogan has ensured that his country is looked upon with disdain and mistrust. Never in the history of the Turkish Republic has its reputation been so damaged by one leader. 

Erdogan’s actions also present an additional problem for NATO going forward. Even if Sweden is eventually admitted, existing members like Turkey and Hungary have figured out that they can hold the alliance hostage to leverage policy demands. 

This has fundamentally weakened the alliance because rather than plan for what to do about less-than-sincere allies, which undermine NATO’s cohesivity, they have accommodated Erdogan’s outrageous demands. In the case of Sweden, the country has amended its laws, constitution, and arguably compromised its democratic principles, all in the hope of satisfying one man. What demands could leaders like Erdogan and Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban have in the future and how far will members go to satisfy them, while undermining their own principles and unity? 

On this front, Erdogan has won, because leveraging his position inside the NATO alliance to get what he wants has yielded results. He has not yet gotten the F-16 jets, but in contrast, he has also not paid a heavy political toll. He has convinced Turkey’s population that he is a tough and respected leader in front of world leaders, who are at his beck and call. If one doubts this, one only needs to take a cursory look at the mainstream Turkish press following the Vilnius summit. It’s a parallel universe where Erdogan won and got everything he wanted. While you may be tempted to think this is bereft of substance and not a reflection of reality, one needs to consider the importance that Erdogan places in continuously shoring up his own domestic image.

It is incumbent upon the NATO alliance to figure out what to do about internal threats that endanger the organization’s unity and effectiveness. This is not an easy task to accomplish, as there is no mechanism to hold a member to account. If it’s not attempted, however, future crises where the military alliance is held hostage by members such as Turkey cannot be far away.

Sinan Ciddi (@SinanCiddi) is a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in which he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power. Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Written By

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi.