Turkey, Hungary to approve Finland’s NATO membership

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Turkey and Hungary announced Friday that they will sign off on Finland’s NATO membership — removing the biggest barrier to Finland’s joining the alliance but leaving Sweden’s bid languishing.

“We have decided to initiate the ratification process in our parliament,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a press conference in Istanbul alongside his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinistö. 

Erdoğan’s move will inevitably fuel concerns about the alliance’s cohesion as Sweden — which was originally invited to join together with Finland — gets left behind for the moment.

Ankara has expressed concerns about arms exports and the countries’ support for Kurdish groups, prompting months of negotiations with Finland and Sweden. 

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But despite policy changes, Turkey holds onto its quibbles with Sweden and continues blocking Stockholm’s process. 

On Friday, Erdoğan lauded Finland for taking “authentic and concrete steps” while criticizing Sweden for not handing over those wanted by Turkey. 

“With Finland’s membership, NATO will become stronger,” the Turkish president said, adding that talks with Stockholm will go on. 

NATO member Hungary, which has also held back approval for the two countries to join the defense bloc, has now joined in backing Finland’s membership.

In a Facebook post on Friday afternoon, the ruling Fidesz party’s parliamentary group leader, Máté Kocsis, said his party is backing Finland and that a vote is scheduled for Hungary’s parliament to ratify on March 27.

A decision on Sweden, however, will be made at a later date, the Hungarian parliamentarian added. 

Continued delays for Sweden will inevitably raise questions about the alliance’s military strategy and the credibility of its membership process. One Swedish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive process, said much will depend on how long Sweden remains on ice.

“In the short run there are no major concerns on our end,” the official said Friday. “Should this turn out to be a prolonged state of things, then it will become more concerning.”

This view was echoed by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

“The most important thing,” he said in a statement on Friday following Turkey’s announcement, “is that both Finland and Sweden become full members of NATO quickly, not whether they join at exactly the same time.”

There are hopes within NATO that Turkey’s parliament could sign off on Sweden’s bid after the Turkish elections in May — and before NATO leaders gather for a key summit in Lithuania in July. 

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told POLITICO last month that the Vinius summit will be the “milestone.” 

“If things are postponed after that, it’s not good” for the reputation of the alliance, Haavisto added.

At Friday’s press conference, Finnish President Niinistö said his country’s NATO membership “is not complete without Sweden,” adding that he hopes to see an alliance of 32 members at this summer’s summit. 

Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a leading researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said he does not foresee a “scenario where Turkey just decides to kind of keep Sweden hanging for no reason for years and years.” 

Much depends on Erdoğan’s political calculus. 

“It doesn’t seem like he has a lot more to gain from that,” Salonius-Pasternak said.