NATO Expansion: Turkey Backs Sweden’s Membership Bid in Backroom Deal for Support of Islamic Country Joining EU

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson shake hands next to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg prior to their meeting, on the eve of a NATO summit, in Vilnius on July 10, 2023. (Photo by YVES HERMAN / POOL / AFP) (Photo by YVES HERMAN/POOL/AFP via Getty …

Before the NATO summit in Vilnius even officially began, backroom dealmaking will likely see the American-led military alliance expand for the second time this year, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan officially backing the membership bid of Sweden in exchange for the Nordic nation’s support of Islamic country joining the European Union.

Following trilateral meetings between Turkish President Erdoğan, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, an announcement was made that Turkey would drop its longstanding opposition to Sweden’s NATO membership bid.

The acceptance of the bid, which is now seemingly a forgone conclusion with Hungary saying that it will not block the move, will mean that the Western alliance will have added two countries to its ranks this year, alone, with Finland becoming the alliance’s 31st member in April. Per Polish business newspaper Rzeczpospolita, Turkey suddenly flipping on Sweden has come as a real surprise to many.

Announcing the deal between the two nations, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said: “Completing Sweden’s accession to NATO is a historic step that benefits the security of all NATO Allies at this critical time. It makes us all stronger and safer.”

For his part, Swedish PM Ulf Kristersson said per Aftonbladet: “It has been a long day and a long journey on the way to Sweden’s NATO membership… I am a person who devotes myself more to facts than feelings, but it feels good. This has been my target image for a very, very long time. Everyone has worked incredibly hard to make this happen.”

Turkey previously stood as the principal opponent of Sweden’s admission into NATO over what Ankara believed was a soft stance by Stockholm against members of the Marxist-separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the EU and the U.S. consider a terrorist organisation. The Islamic government of Erdoğan was also angered by the liberal Nordic nation’s free speech-inspired position of allowing the Muslim holy book of the Qur’an to be burnt at protests.

Commenting on the issue of Qur’an burning, Mr Kristersson said: “I emphasize to President Erdoğan but also to the Secretary-General that I think that what is done, which is legal, does not always have to be appropriate, and that this is largely done to damage Sweden’s relations with Turkey in particular or to disrupt Sweden’s accession process to NATO.

“I do not like it. I think you should come to your senses and realize that we live in a dangerous world and that this is important for Sweden.”

Prior to the negotiations in Vilnius, Sweden’s Justice Minister Gunnar Strömmer suggested that his country might be willing to look to enact blasphemy-style laws to prevent the burning of the Qur’an to appease Turkish opposition to their NATO membership bid, however, there was no such announcements made in Lithuania.

However, Sweden did agree to back the ascension of the Islamic country into the European Union as part of the deal on Monday, a longstanding aim of the Erdoğan government and perhaps the most geopolitically significant development to come from the meetings.

Turkey began negotiations with the European Union to join the bloc in 2005, however, talks stalled in 2018 when the European Council raised concerns over what it described as a “backsliding on the rule of law and on fundamental rights including the freedom of expression” in the country. While it is by no means a done deal, with Sweden’s backing, the prospect of Turkey becoming the 28th member of the EU could once again be on the table.

The admission of the Islamic nation into the EU was a key issue in the lead-up to the 2016 Brexit Referendum, with campaigners warning that it could open the door to further waves of migration to the UK. Proponents of remaining in the EU accused Brexiteers who raised the issue as racist and of using the “Turkish boogeyman”.

It may be some years before Turkey is allowed to join the bloc, however, should its ascension bid be ratified, it could have significant impacts on the very nature of the EU. The move would pave the way for Turkey to also join Europe’s ‘free movement’ Schengen Area of visa-free travel, a move that would likely see millions of Turks migrate West, with Germany likely being a top destination given its large Turkish diaspora population.

Were it to be admitted, Turkey would instantly become the largest country by population within the EU, currently edging out Germany by around one and a half million residents, 85 million compared to 83.4 million, respectively. Such an addition may upend the leftist agenda preferred by Brussels and the current Western European power centres of France and Germany, with Turkey likely to side with conservative member states such as Poland and Hungary, particularly on social issues such as the LGBTQ2S+ agenda.

In his victory speech following his re-election as president in May, Erdoğan vowed to protect his country from attempts by the “pro-LGBT” to “infiltrate” Turkish society.

President Erdoğan is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday evening when they are likely to discuss Turkey’s desire to join the EU — a move the Biden administration has expressed support for — as well as Ankara’s wish to acquire new American-made F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits to upgrade its existing fleet.

Signalling that the White House may back such a move, Biden said on Monday evening: “I stand ready to work with President Erdogan and Turkey on enhancing defence and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area.”

Although the thorny issue of Ukrainian NATO membership remains undecided, the summit in Vilnius is already being hailed as a success following the agreement between Turkey and Sweden.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday: “Rumors of the death of NATO’s unity were greatly exaggerated.”

One of the chief war hawks in Germany, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said: “Good news from Vilnius: the way is finally clear for Turkey to ratify Sweden’s #NATO membership. Our joint efforts have paid off. At 32, we’re all safer together. Happy birthday Sweden!”

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly added: “It is in everyone’s interest for Sweden to join NATO. Their accession makes us all safer. The UK welcomes the steps Turkey has taken today to bring this closer. We continue to stand by our Swedish friends.”

In response to the expansion of the Western military alliance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov vaguely said on Tuesday that Moscow would take steps to protect its own “legitimate security interests”.

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