The Turkish problem for Sweden’s NATO accession

The Turkish problem for Sweden’s NATO accession


17 | 06 | 2022


Although many argue that Turkey at the end won’t represent a definitive impediment, the situation still has some loose-ends yet to be tied

En la imagen

Joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the Prime Minister of Sweden, Magdalena Andersson, June 13, 2022 [Swedish Gov.]

With activity around NATO still hot over the accession of Finland and Sweden, action is far from over for the two nations, particularly for Sweden. In fact, the upcoming months will still be determinant, as Turkey has tightened the conditions to acquiesce to Sweden’s definitive accession to the Alliance. Ankara’s concerns stem from the ‘leniency’ that Sweden has demonstrated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). In parallel, Turkey is still conditioned by an arms embargo imposed on it by Sweden, an issue that will also need to be dealt with. The clash, now in the central stage for the members of the Alliance, will have to be addressed in the upcoming NATO Summit of Madrid (June 29-30).

Sweden and Finland have applied to become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a direct consequence of the events in Ukraine, which have made them fear for their own national security against Russian threats. The origin of the present conflict between Turkey and the accession of Sweden can be traced back to May, when Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan publicly criticized both aspiring nations for harboring terrorists and even giving asylum to some of them (Sweden has openly helped Kurdish refugees in its territory, something seen as a big red flag by Turkey). He advanced that unless they accepted the conditions established by his government, there would be no accession.

The demands put forward by Turkey were, in the first place, that the authorities in Stockholm cease accepting and protecting the PKK’s activities of fundraising the network and recruiting people in and from Sweden. Additionally, Sweden has given protection to political refugees thought to be behind the 2016 alleged coup attempt in Turkey. Other argument used by Erdogan is the arms embargo imposed on Turkey by the two northern nations as a result of the former´s military operations in Iraq and Syria. The Turkish population, aware of such demands, is openly supportive of Erdogan´s stance.

However, the view in Sweden is quite different. After the Turkish tirade, Stockholm backlashed a few days later, arguing that Sweden was the first country, after Turkey, to list the PKK as a terrorist group, back in the year 1984. Nevertheless, the argument will be hard to sustain given the fact that a former Peshmerga fighter, named Amineh Kakabaveh, is a member of the Swedish Parliament; it was precisely her vote against the no-confidence question placed against the Minister of Justice Morgan Johansson, which saved him, in exchange of some “promises” made to her concerning the Kurds.

Article 10

The debate may seem insignificant in terms of the accession of Sweden to the Alliance. After all, Turkey is just one among thirty members of NATO, and has traditionally been a firm supporter of the open-door policy that characterizes the North Atlantic organization. Interestingly, prior to the submission of their applications, both European nations carried out a brief survey of the rest of members, to get a general picture of the landscape within the Alliance, and none of them raised an issue at all with their admission. Yet, just hours after the formal submission, Turkey immediately jumped out and demanded to both Sweden and Finland to stand with them “in solidarity on fundamental issues, especially in the fight against terrorism”.

The reason for which the demands of Turkey complicate the situation for Sweden, is the widely known clause of NATO´s Article 10 (on the enlargement of the Alliance). NATO has, as mentioned, an open-door policy, by which “the Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area”. Sweden and Finland, and in particular, the context of their accession, fulfill the requirements expressed in the treaty more than successfully. But, as reflected in the article, unanimity is required. And it is unanimity what now manifests itself as a serious obstacle for Swedish aims. Because, unless a satisfactory solution for both parties in the argument is found, one that satisfies the demands put forward by Erdogan and his government, Sweden´s NATO bid could be in trouble in spite of the firm response already given.  

Possible scenarios

To be able to understand or foresee any plausible scenario in the near future, we need to understand that Turkey´s position is just a reflection of the growing concerns and grievances over the situation in Sweden, and his profound dissatisfaction with the unresponsiveness by the Swedish to its continuous demands to end the fundraising activities towards the Kurdish refugees in the territory. Turkey has been firm in its demands, and that would leave Sweden with the initial possibility of denying the conditions agreed with Kakabaveh on deepening their cooperation with Kurdish authorities in Northern Syria. The problem with this solution is that, if the Swedish Justice Minister has been able to resist the no-confidence bid with her aid, any failure to live up to the promises made would compromise considerably the credibility of the government overall.

On the other side, an additional alternative would be, as Turkey demands, lifting the arms embargo imposed to them after the alleged coup attempt of 2016. This would not be a total compliance with the entire pack of demands put forward, but would still facilitate the road towards an agreement. Precisely, the improvement seen by Turkey over Sweden´s attitude at the end of May, is indicative that this option could be more than a likely scenario that guarantees the accession after all. Ankara seemed to be more than positive about the advancements made by the Swedish government. But yet, the situation has not progressed much since then.

Interestingly, this pattern of actions by Turkey towards the Alliance when it comes to reaching any agreement, has been argued by some as being a mechanism for Erdogan to appeal its population and gain support internally. A strategy used in the past to pressure any particular demand put forward, experience shows that Turkey would end up giving its consent to the accession. Thus, others have pointed out that the issue will eventually be settled with Turkey easing over its demands and finally agreeing to give its consent to the Baltic accessions.

Nevertheless, it remains clear for now that Sweden and Turkey will still have to work their differences out if the Scandinavian nation wants to become an official member. Despite the tensions that have appeared during the past months, Article 10 and Turkey´s demands seem to be the ultimate challenge for Sweden. And although many still argue that Turkey will in the end accept the terms and won’t represent such a big impediment, the situation at the moment still has some loose-ends yet to be tied, leading some to advance that there will be no success for Sweden -at least this time. This would also be a turn point for Finland´s application as well. The two nations have historically had quite similar foreign policies, and since the beginning of the process, their respective prime ministers have made it clear that they will go all the way together (and in case not, as said by Minister Niinistö, Finland will not proceed alone).