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New Atlanticist January 23, 2024

Experts react: How close is Sweden to joining NATO after the Turkish parliament’s approval?

By Atlantic Council experts

Application: still pending. It’s been 615 days since Sweden submitted its request to join NATO, and while it’s not in the Alliance yet, it got closer on Tuesday when Turkey’s parliament approved its accession. The ratification now goes to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to sign, after which all allies will have approved Sweden’s membership except Hungary. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who had previously promised that his country would not be the last, on Tuesday invited his Swedish counterpart to Budapest to discuss the matter. Below, Atlantic Council experts explain how Turkey voted, why Hungary is delaying, and what Sweden should expect next.

Click to jump to an expert analysis:

Defne Arslan: Erdogan’s political gamble hints at a deal on F-16s

Anna Wieslander: Will Hungary now follow Turkey’s lead in approving Sweden’s accession?

Rich Outzen: A long road for Sweden’s accession, but it’s heading in the right direction

Erdogan’s political gamble hints at a deal on F-16s

The Turkish parliament’s vote for Sweden’s accession to NATO marks a milestone in a prolonged approval process since Erdoğan announced in July 2023 that he would send the ratification to parliament. The bill was finally discussed at parliament’s foreign affairs commission in late December, resulting in a recommendation just before parliament’s winter recess to get the bill approved on the floor. It’s worth noting that the accession protocol was supported by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in addition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their alliance partner the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

During the long negotiations, Ankara has demanded that Stockholm step up in its fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and others. Turkey’s point was that NATO members should take member countries’ security concerns seriously, and Sweden needs to take Turkey’s concerns seriously in order to be in NATO. Eventually, a series of measures passed by Sweden, including a new anti-terrorism law that went into effect last year, helped to ease Turkey’s concerns.  

Meanwhile, as these discussions continued with Sweden, Turkey also saw an opportunity to receive from the United States its long-delayed package of new F-16 fighter jets and upgrades to its existing fleet, noting again that NATO members need to take fellow member-state security measures seriously. Indeed, the renewal of the F-16 program is not only in Turkey’s security interest, but also in the United States’ security interest in the region. 

The next step is Erdoğan sending the bill to Turkey’s official gazette, so the law can take effect. But after the recent PKK attacks in Northern Iraq killing twenty-one Turkish soldiers, Erdoğan is taking a big risk in giving a green light to the bill given the sensitivity of the PKK issue among the Turkish people. The most likely explanation is that Turkey has secured F-16s from the United States in return. That would help Erdoğan use this deal as a political issue in the upcoming March local elections, which are hugely important for the Turkish president as he is determined to take back Istanbul and several other major cities that the AKP lost to the opposition in previous local elections.  

Defne Arslan is the senior director and founder of Atlantic Council IN TURKEY, leading the Council’s global work and programming on Turkey.

Will Hungary now follow Turkey’s lead in approving Sweden’s accession?

There is one word that sums up the feelings in Stockholm today: FINALLY! The Turkish parliament has, at last, voted yes to Sweden’s accession protocol to NATO. What was supposed to be a “fast-track” process hand-in-hand with Finland, after quick ratifications by twenty-eight allies, turned into a frustrating journey for Sweden, as the process first was haltered and then fragmented by Turkey when Finland was allowed to join on April 4, 2023, but not Sweden. Meanwhile, the security situation in Europe has continued to deteriorate.  

Step-by-step, rather than fast-track, is the best way to characterize the process. The question now is what the final steps will be. On the Turkish side, the parallel F-16 deal with the United States is still looming. On the Hungarian side, the other ally that has not yet ratified Sweden’s accession, new obstacles are emerging. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced today on X that he had sent a letter to Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and invited him to visit Hungary to “negotiate” on Sweden’s NATO accession. Up until now, Sweden has taken comfort in earlier Hungarian promises that the country would not be the last to ratify.

While Hungary has put nothing openly on the table other than a vague discontent with Sweden’s “attitude,” fighter jets could be a negotiation card here as well, as Hungary leases Swedish JAS Gripen, a contract which is up for extension and possible expansion. 

For NATO and the twenty-nine allies that want to see Sweden as ally number thirty-two as soon as possible, concerns are growing. The urgent executability of the new regional plans in the High North will be more difficult with Sweden on the outside of the Alliance. In addition, the inability to advance on enlargement weakens NATO politically at a critical time for European security, to the benefit of Russia. One problem is that Hungary might have nothing left to lose when it comes to reputational damage to NATO; on the contrary, Orbán might feel strengthened by his recent negotiation success in the European Union as a consequence of blocking support to Ukraine.

Anna Wieslander is the director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council and chair of the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP) in Stockholm, Sweden.

A long road for Sweden’s accession, but it’s heading in the right direction

The Turkish parliament’s vote to approve Sweden’s accession into NATO brings a long and complicated process of “assurance building” nearer to completion. Several hurdles have been cleared since the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine led Sweden to seek accession. The first was Ankara’s insistence that Sweden cannot enter NATO as a haven for activities of the PKK, an anti-Turkish terror-designated movement by US and European Union law. Constitutional reforms and the advent of a Swedish government more sympathetic to Turkish security concerns have not fully satisfied the Turks but have provided enough of a start to indicate a trend in a positive direction—a significant accomplishment. By agreeing with Turkey and Finland in a Trilateral Memorandum to heed each other’s security concerns with appropriate gravity, and by following through with substantive steps, Sweden overcame this obstacle.

The second obstacle has been the defense industrial imbroglio between the United States and Turkey, which became entangled with Sweden’s accession after politicians first in Washington and later in Ankara tied them together. With Turkey seeking new and upgraded F-16s after the United States expelled it from the F-35 program—and with NATO clearly standing to benefit from updated Turkish air capabilities—the necessary congressional approvals became difficult even as Sweden’s accession lagged behind Finland’s due to holdouts Turkey and Hungary. It was clear from the start that given congressional dislike for Erdoğan’s government, it would take US President Joe Biden personally, and the executive branch collectively, exerting massive efforts to assure that F-16 approval would quickly follow (or occur simultaneously) with the Turkish parliament’s approval for Sweden. It appears that Ankara now believes that the groundwork for F-16 passage has been effectively laid in Washington, and that the assurances are firm. 

The final obstacle has been Russia’s campaign to persuade Turkey (and Hungary) not to allow Sweden in. There is a theme woven into the NATO expansion process of Turkey carefully balancing to keep Russia from defeating Ukraine but also offering some concessions—like not enforcing US sanctions and slowing Swedish accession. Yet with Russian President Vladimir Putin coming to Turkey in the coming weeks (as announced by Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov today), it is a fair inference that Putin has pushed Erdoğan as far as he can in the process and will shrug as it crosses the finish line. 

There are still wildcards at play here. Hungary’s invitation to Sweden to negotiate on the accession deal may delay things a while more, even after the Turkish parliament says yes. Erdogan may tarry a bit before publishing the parliamentary decision in the official gazette. Congress may say “What F-16s?” in a manner that damages both Swedish accession hopes and NATO’s southern flank. One possible theory Ankara insiders are discussing is that Biden, accounting for congressional prerogatives, may have assured Erdoğan that if the F-16s stall, he will lobby Germany aggressively to approve the sale of Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft in lieu of F-16s. There are several alternative scenarios. For now, though, fans of the Alliance should take heart from the decision in Ankara—it is moving in the right direction. 

Rich Outzen is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY and a geopolitical analyst and consultant currently serving private sector clients as Dragoman LLC.

Further reading

Related Experts: Defne Arslan, Anna Wieslander, and Rich Outzen

Image: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gather prior to their meeting, on the eve of a NATO summit, in Vilnius, Lithuania July 10, 2023. Henrik Montgomery /TT News Agency/via REUTERS