Sweden’s rocky road from neutrality to NATO membership

Vilnius – When the long-neutral Sweden applied for NATO membership along with Finland, both countries hoped for a speedy accession process.

Over a year later, Finland has joined, but Sweden is still in the alliance’s dressing room.

New membership requires the approval of all existing members, but Sweden has missed the go-ahead from two countries, Turkey and Hungary, as NATO leaders hold a summit in Vilnius.

A major hurdle was overcome on Monday when the Turkish president agreed to send NATO accession documents, which he had refused for more than a year, to the Turkish parliament for approval.

This means that Sweden is now close to becoming NATO’s 32nd member, although not yet crossing the finish line. Here’s what you need to know about Sweden’s rocky road to joining the alliance.

Farewell to Neutrality

For a country that has not been at war for two centuries, the decision to join NATO was a huge one. Sweden refused to take sides during World War II or the Cold War, embracing neutrality as a core part of its security policy and national identity.

After joining the European Union in 1995, it fine-tuned its status to “non-aligned” and gradually stepped up cooperation with NATO, but until last year Stockholm had refused to apply for membership, and public opinion was against it.

As of November 2021, three months before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, then-Minister of Defense Peter Hultqvist said that Sweden would never join NATO while the center-left Social Democrats were in power. promised not to join

Then the war started. Public opinion in both Finland and Sweden has changed as Russian tanks roar across the Ukrainian border and missiles hit Kiev and other cities. Hultqvist and the Social Democrats also made a U-turn, and last May Sweden and Finland jointly applied for NATO membership.

Turkey says not so fast

Sweden and Finland had already met the entry criteria, and with the added urgency of the war in Ukraine, most observers expected the Swedish and Finnish applications to move quickly. NATO’s 28 countries quickly ratified the Accession Protocol.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had other ideas. He said that Turkey will continue to push the Nordic countries unless it cracks down on groups that the Turkish government sees as security threats, such as the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has led insurgency in Turkey for decades. He said he could not be welcomed as a NATO ally.

Sweden has hosted more than a million refugees in recent decades, including tens of thousands of Kurds from Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Some of them sympathize with the PKK, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the European Union.

In an attempt to address Erdogan’s concerns, Finland and Sweden struck a deal with Turkey at the NATO summit in Madrid last year. Both countries have committed to resuming arms exports to Turkey, which had been suspended following Turkey’s 2019 incursion into Kurdish areas in northern Syria, strengthening anti-terrorism laws, and deterring PKK activities in their countries. Agreed to strengthen.

When Sweden elected a center-right government last September, the former Social Democratic government was burdened with backing Kurdish militants in Syria with ties to the PKK, making negotiations with Turkey a little easier. was expected.

But things got complicated in January when pro-Kurdish activists temporarily hung Erdogan’s portrait on a streetlight outside Stockholm City Hall. Shortly after, anti-Islamic activists from Denmark burned the Koran in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm.

If the goal was to infuriate Turkey and delay Sweden’s entry into NATO, the protests had the desired effect. Turkey has frozen NATO negotiations with Sweden and allowed Finland to join in April. The government of Conservative Prime Minister Wolfe Christerson spent months trying to repair the damage.

Just as relations seemed to be improving, refugees from Iraq staged yet another protest last month burning Korans outside Stockholm mosques, and Turkey lifted its ban on Sweden’s membership ahead of the NATO summit in Vilnius. I lost hope that he would.

Who is behind the protests?

Anti-President Erdogan protests have drawn pro-Kurdish and far-left demonstrators in Sweden. Some participants waved PKK flags. Meanwhile, the burning of the Quran was carried out by far-right Danish activists and Christian refugees from Iraq. The protest might not have gotten as much attention had it not been for the attention of NATO, but with the Turkish government watching Sweden closely, the protest made headlines in Turkey and other Islamic countries, and led to the criticized Sweden for condoning the protests. This has sparked debate in Sweden over whether the burning of the Quran is considered illegal incitement to hatred, or a legal expression of opinion about world religions.

Swedish authorities are trying to assure Turkey that Sweden is not an Islamophobic country, stressing that while the government does not condone the burning of the Koran on the grounds of free speech, it cannot be stopped. there is The government’s strong condemnation of the protests sparked a backlash at home, accusing Christerson of bending backwards to appease Turkey.

Russia’s involvement in the protests has also been raised. As soon as Sweden began applying for membership, the country’s security officials warned that Moscow could step up its influence activities during the application process. However, there is no evidence of links between Russia and the protesters.

What else does Turkey want?

Turkey’s postponement of Sweden’s NATO bid has irritated the United States and other allies. Some analysts have suggested Turkey is using its influence to press for F-16 fighter upgrades from the United States said the upgrades were not related, but President Joe Biden said they implicitly linked the two issues. Spoke by phone with President Erdogan in May.

“I spoke with President Erdogan and he still wants to work on something with the F-16. Biden said.

Just before leaving for the NATO summit in Vilnius on Monday, Erdogan came up with yet another request. He said European countries should resume long-frozen talks on Turkey’s accession to the European Union. “If you pave the way for Turkey, you will pave the way for Sweden as we paved the way for Finland,” he said.

The NATO Secretary General announced the breakthrough after President Erdogan held separate meetings in Vilnius with Christersson and EU Council President Charles Michel. Erdogan has announced that he is ready to send Sweden’s accession protocol to the Turkish parliament in exchange for Sweden’s help to revive Turkey’s quest and deeper cooperation on security issues. EU member state.

Christersson praised the deal as a “very big step” towards NATO membership, but said it was not a complete deal, noting that it was unclear when Turkey’s parliament would make a decision.

how about hungary?

Unlike Turkey, Hungary has not provided a reason why it has not yet ratified Sweden’s NATO membership. Before the war, Hungary pursued close economic and diplomatic ties with Russia. Since its inception, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has refused arms support to Ukraine and opposed European Union sanctions against Russia.

Prime Minister Orban, who visited Vienna last week, denied that Hungary was delaying Sweden’s application for membership.

“We support Sweden’s membership, but the Hungarian parliament has not yet approved this decision,” he said. “We are in constant contact with the NATO Secretary General and the Turkish side, so if there is something we need to do, we will act.”

Many analysts believe Orban is waiting for Erdogan’s next move and that Hungary will approve Sweden’s membership if Turkey could make a similar move. That is what happened with Finland’s accession.

___ Associated Press correspondent Justin Spike of Budapest and Gail Mulson of Berlin contributed to the report.

Copyright 2023 Associated Press. all rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/world/2023/07/11/swedens-rocky-road-from-neutrality-toward-nato-membership/ Sweden’s rocky road from neutrality to NATO membership

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