The story so far: A day ahead of a key summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) on Monday, July 10, checked off a major task from its agenda for this year. It finally reached a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to let Sweden into the military alliance. This came after a year of negotiations and global leaders lobbying Mr. Erdogan to drop his veto against Sweden, which he contended was harbouring “terrorist groups.”
What is the procedure to join NATO?
There are some minimum requirements for a country to be eligible to join NATO, such asand so on.
Once a country applies for NATO membership, they are signed on to a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a mechanism used by every new member that joined between 1999 and 2020. Sweden and Finland, the most recent applicants, however, did not use this procedure.
Once a country has met the requirements and expressed its intention to join NATO, it is invited to do so if all member countries agree. This marks the beginning of accession talks, which end with the signing of the Accession Protocol.
All member countries— 31 at present— have to sign the Protocol and then get it ratified by their national legislatures, subsequently submitting the ratified instrument to the United States government, which is the depositary of the Treaty.
Since all existing members have to undertake this process, the Turkish President’s disagreement over Sweden has effectively acted as a veto power.
When did Sweden apply to join NATO?
In May 2022, two Nordic countries, Sweden and Finland, applied to join NATO, the organisation whose initial goal was to block the erstwhile Soviet Union’s expansion in Europe post the Second World War.
These countries have historically had a policy of military ‘non-alignment.’ While the two countries co-operated with NATO as closely as a non-member could, they did not apply for official membership until last year. In the past, they have held joint military drills with NATO, shared intelligence and have supported NATO’s military missions abroad.
It was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine that largely triggered the countries’ bid to join NATO. The Russian military operation in Ukraine was seen by many as Russia violating the sovereignty of a weaker power in its neighbourhood. It also raised questions as to whether Russia would have started the war if Ukraine had been a NATO member. While Sweden and Finland did not have a border issue with Russia, neither did Ukraine until the Crimean annexation by Moscow in 2014. Sweden and Finland were now worried about a potential future border conflict. The war virtually changed the security dynamic in the region and prompted the two nations to apply for NATO membership, believing that it would act as a deterrent.
However, the membership bids of the countries hit a year-long impasse owing to the objections of one NATO member— Turkey. While Turkey agreed earlier this year to let Finland join the alliance, it held out on Sweden’s bid.
Why was Turkey against Sweden’s NATO membership?
Turkey has argued that Sweden and Finland have ties with “terrorist” groups — a reference to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The PKK, which seeks greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish minority, has waged an armed insurgency since the mid-1980s. The YPG is the armed wing of Syrian Kurdistan which controls parts of the Kurdish region in Syria. The PKK is also deemed a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
Meanwhile, Sweden has criticised Turkey for human rights abuses, especially in Kurdish regions, and questioned its democratic standards— which has not gone down with politicians in Ankara.
Mr. Erdogan said Sweden, and Finland to a certain extent, maintained close ties with Kurdish militias, particularly the YPG. It also accused the countries of hosting supporters of the Fethullah Gulen movement, a religious sect led by the U.S.-based Gulen accused by Ankara of masterminding the failed 2016 coup against Mr. Erdogan. It also alleged that the two Nordic countries refused to extradite 33 people wanted by Ankara.
Mr. Erdogan was also upset by an arms shipment embargo imposed by the two countries on Turkey from 2019 after its incursion into Syria against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia. As a concession to get Turkey on board for their NATO bid, Sweden lifted the ban last year.
In June 2022, following negotiations, Turkey agreed to let Finland and Sweden join NATO provided they worked on counter-terrorism measures. In March this year, Turkey said it was satisfied with Finland’s efforts and ratified its Accession Protocol, but said that Sweden had not done enough.
Earlier this year, protests in Stockholm where the Quran was burned also added to Turkey’s disagreement. On a separate occasion, an effigy of Erdogan was hanged upside down, as per a Reuters report.
What softened Turkey’s stance on Sweden?
A look at some simultaneous developments and at the Joint Statement by NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, Mr. Erdogan, and Swedish Prime Ulf Kristersson indicates that the reasons for Turkey’s change in stance are multi-fold.
“Sweden has amended its constitution, changed its laws, significantly expanded its counter- terrorism cooperation against the PKK, and resumed arms exports to Türkiye, all steps set out in the Trilateral Memorandum agreed in 2022,”
The two countries also agreed to create a new bilateral Security Compact that will meet annually at ministerial level. NATO reiterated that it condemns terrorism and decided to create the post of Special Coordinator for Counter-terrorism for the alliance.
While these are efforts toward Turkey’s original objection about Sweden harbouring “terrorist groups,” Ankara has managed to get a lot more in return for its green light to Sweden’s NATO bid.
Mr. Erdogan this week said he would clear the way for Sweden to join NATO, if Turkey was allowed to join the European Union. Turkey launched its bid to join the EU in 2005, but some of Mr. Erdogan’s internal politics led to an indefinite suspension of talks. In 2016, the European Parliament had voted to suspend talks after noting human rights violations, jailing of dissidents, and deterioration of the rule of law in Turkey, and how the President strengthened his grip on the country’s leadership.
While Mr. Erdogan’s proposal was brushed off by the EU and Washington, Sweden promised that it would support some of Turkey’s bids to join and some of its demands at the EU. These demands include the modernisation of the EU-Turkey Customs Union and visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens.
Analysts also point out another potentially significant development: U.S President Joe Biden announced hours after the NATO deal with Turkey that the White House would move forward with a deal to transfer F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.
In 2019, Washington had dropped Turkey from a programme to develop and produce F-35 fighter jets after the latter purchased the S-400 defence system from Russia. America has also imposed sanctions on Turkey. Since then, Turkey has demanded that it be allowed to purchase F-16 jets and optimise the ones it already had.
What does Sweden’s membership mean for NATO?
Firstly, this membership aligns with NATO’s expansion plans. Second, it helps consolidate NATO’s security efforts and defence integration in the Nordic, Baltic region, and Arctic regions. All other Nordic countries are already members of the alliance.
It also brings NATO closer to Russia’s borders. Further, Sweden has a sophisticated army and defence technology, which could benefit NATO.
For Sweden, it means securing NATO protections that only formal membership brings. For instance, Article 5 of NATO says that any attack on a NATO member “shall be considered an attack against them all”.
The Turkish President has said he will get Sweden’s Accession Protocol ratified in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly as soon as possible. It is yet to be seen how long his administration will take to introduce the document in the legislature and convince hard line politicians who are against Sweden over the alleged Kurdish ties.
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