Can Turkey block Sweden and Finland’s entry into NATO?

Can Turkey block Sweden and Finland’s entry into NATO?


Text by:

Grégoire SAUVAGE

4 min

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed strong views against Sweden and Finland’s entry into NATO. He has accused the two Nordic countries, in particular Sweden, of serving as a refuge for the “terrorists” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Ankara’s bête noire. However, will Turkey go all way and block the accession process? FRANCE 24 takes a closer look.

Turkey has consistently adopted different positions to that of other countries within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). After buying an anti-missile system from Russia in 2019, Ankara is once again alone in opposing Finnish and Swedish membership.

“How can we trust them? Sweden is a breeding ground for terrorist organisations (…) We will not support giving NATO membership,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday, May 16, after the two Nordic countries had formally decided to apply for membership.

Officially, Ankara is angered by the close ties that these two countries, in particular Sweden, have with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed political group. Formed in 1978, the PKK has been designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and much of the international community, including the US and EU.

“Sweden occupies a specific place in the Turkish diaspora. Since the 1980s, the country has taken in many political refugees, many of whom are suspected by Turkey of being PKK militants. This is a long-standing dispute between Stockholm and Ankara,” said Élise Massicard, a specialist in the political sociology of contemporary Turkey and a researcher at Sciences Po. “According to a widespread view among Turkish nationalists, the reason the PKK still exists, despite 40 years of a war waged with extraordinary means, is because it has these ‘rear bases’ outside Turkey,” added Massicard.

‘Right of veto’

Ankara has made it clear that it wants to use Sweden and Finland’s applications as a tool to weaken support for Kurdish separatist groups. “We must absolutely stop supporting terrorist organisations (…). I am not saying this as a bargaining chip, but because this is what it means to be allies,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu said Sunday in Berlin, on the sidelines of one of the organisation’s informal meetings.

In theory, Turkey has every right to block Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO. As per Article 10 of its founding treaty, the two Scandinavian countries must convince all 30 members of the organisation of the merits of their application.

>> No longer neutral? War in Ukraine tests Finland’s stance on Russia

“The alliance works on the principle of consensus. Each member therefore has the right of veto. We saw this with Greece, which opposed North Macedonia’s accession for years” because of a dispute over the country’s name [Macedonia is also the name of a Greek region], said geopolitologist Olivier Kempf.

Although the red carpet seemed to have been rolled out for Sweden and Finland, two solid democracies close to NATO via its Partnership for Peace programme, Turkey’s position is causing confusion within the defence alliance.

“I am confident that we will be able to find common ground, a consensus on how to move forward on membership issues,” said Jens Stoltenberg, the organisation’s secretary-general, before adding that Turkey had “clearly indicated its intention not to block” the process.

“There will be so much political pressure on Turkey that it will not be able to block Finland and Sweden’s accession,” said Kempf.

Turkey awaits compensation 

According to specialists, Ankara is above all shedding light on Swedish support for the PKK in order to regain influence within the military alliance. “Turkey’s relationship with NATO has been very complicated for several years. It had come to the point of talking about its exclusion. For Turkey, it is a question of avoiding being marginalised,” said Massicard.

Turkey has adopted this position in the hopes of obtaining compensation from the organisation’s members, in particular the United States. In 2020, Washington imposed sanctions on the Turkish defence industry, following the latter’s purchase of the Russian S 400 anti-missile system. Turkey was also excluded from the US F-35 stealth fighter programme, for which “it had placed an order and paid a down payment of $1.4 billion”, according to Courrier International. A gesture by Joe Biden on this issue would undoubtedly overcome Ankara’s reluctance.

>> Not what Putin wanted: How will Russia respond to NATO bids by Finland and Sweden?

Finally, it is very possible that Turkey is sending a message to Russia, which sees Western countries’ expansion of NATO to the East as a betrayal. Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Ankara has been trying to maintain good relations with the two opposing countries on which its economy is heavily reliant. “The Turks and the Russians also share the Black Sea and common interests in Syria,” said Kempf. “Erdogan supports Ukraine but is careful not to go too far.”

This issue serves as a good reminder that NATO, even though it has been reinvigorated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is not immune to strategic divergences. “Just because NATO is united on the essentials, doesn’t necessarily mean that there is widespread consensus on everything,” summarised Kempf. “In the end, the underlying problems remain and have not disappeared with the war in Ukraine.”

This article was translated from the original in French

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