ISTANBUL: A key committee in the Turkish parliament on Tuesday approved Sweden’s bid to join Nato after months of delays, clearing another hurdle in the Nordic country’s accession process in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
Sweden’s Nato bid had been stalled amid opposition from Turkey and Hungary and recently it was further complicated after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan linked it to Ankara’s request for F-16 fighter jets from its ally the United States.
Sweden and Finland dropped decades of military non-alignment and sought to join the US-led defence organisation after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
Their bids won fast-track approval from all Nato members except Turkey and Hungary. The two ultimately relented and Finland was accepted as Nato’s 31st member in April.
Turkey and Hungary remain the only North Atlantic Treaty Organization members left to ratify Sweden’s bid 19 months after it applied for membership.
It was not clear when the full assembly would debate the bill.
Erdogan’s ruling party and its allies command a majority in the 600-seat parliament. However, Erdogan has said the decision rests with lawmakers. His ruling party’s nationalist allies remain uneasy with Sweden’s membership and accuse Nato members of indifference toward the PKK threat to Turkey.
This week, Kurdish militants attempted to infiltrate a Turkish base in northern Iraq, killing 12 soldiers in two days of clashes.
Islamist parties, frustrated by what they perceive to be Western nations’ silence toward Israel’s military actions in Gaza, may vote against the bill.
WHAT ABOUT HUNGARY?
Hungary’s governing Fidesz party — led by populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is widely considered one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s only allies in the EU — has stalled Sweden’s Nato bid since July 2022, alleging that Swedish politicians have told “blatant lies” about the condition of Hungary’s democracy.
Yet neither Orbán nor his senior officials have indicated what kind of redress they require from Stockholm to allay their reservations over Sweden joining the military alliance.
Some critics have alleged that Hungary is using its potential veto power over Sweden’s accession as a tool to leverage concessions from the European Union, which has frozen billions in funds to Budapest over concerns over minority rights and the rule of law.
Hungarian officials have said repeatedly that their country will not be the last Nato member to endorse Sweden’s bid. But Ankara’s move toward ratification suggests that the time for further holdups may be running out.
Some opposition politicians in Hungary — who have argued for immediate approval of Sweden’s bid — believe that Orbán’s party is following Ankara’s timetable and will vote to approve once it seems clear that Turkey will imminently do the same.
On Tuesday, the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee approved the measure.
“The protocol (on Sweden’s Nato accession) passed the committee,” opposition CHP party lawmaker Utku Cakirozer, a member of the foreign affairs committee, told AFP after the vote.
The move paves the way to a vote by the full parliament, where Erdogan’s ruling alliance holds the majority of seats. It was no immediately clear when the full parliament would hold its vote.
Erdogan in July lifted his objections to Sweden’s Nato membership after Stockholm cracked down on Kurdish groups that Ankara calls terrorists.
Nato allies have piled pressure on Turkey, with France saying the credibility of the alliance was “at stake”.
In December, Erdogan had linked Sweden’s membership to the US Congress “simultaneously” agreeing to sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. He also said Nato allies including Canada should lift arms embargoes imposed on Ankara.
“Sweden’s Nato membership and F-16 sales to Turkey will be handled in coordination to some extent... because unfortunately, neither country trusts the other,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the Ankara office director of the US German Marshall Fund think tank, told AFP.
Turkey’s ageing air force has suffered from Ankara’s expulsion from the US-led F-35 joint strike fighter programme in 2019.
This was in retaliation for Erdogan’s decision to acquire an advanced Russian missile defence system that Nato views as an operational security threat.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has repeatedly promised to move forward with the $20-billion F-16 sale but lawmakers have blocked it over concerns about Turkey’s alleged violations of human rights and long-running tensions with Greece.
“There is no strong consensus in the parliament on Sweden’s Nato membership, nor in the US Congress on the sale of F-16s to Turkey,” Unluhisarcikli said.
Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric after the start of its war with Hamas had raised concerns in Washington.
“Although the issues are not related, Turkey’s statements supporting Hamas further complicated the F-16 process,” Unluhisarcikli said, adding that the killing of Turkish soldiers by Kurdish militants last weekend could also factor into Sweden’s Nato membership.
“But if Biden and Erdogan show the necessary will, we can expect the process to be concluded soon,” he added.