BRUSSELS — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey gave the go-ahead Friday for Finland’s application to join NATO, clearing a significant hurdle for the Nordic nation’s bid to join the alliance but leaving its neighbor, Sweden, on the sidelines for now.
“We decided to start the ratification process in our parliament for Finland’s membership,” Erdogan said at a news conference in the Turkish capital, Ankara, adding that he would like the vote to take place before elections in mid-May.
Erdogan spoke after concluding a meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto. The leaders had telegraphed that the announcement was forthcoming, with Erdogan saying this week that Turkey would “keep our promise.”
For Finland to join NATO after decades of military nonalignment would be a major shift in the balance of power in the region between the Western military alliance and Russia. It would also be a significant diplomatic and strategic defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who made clear before invading Ukraine last year that his intention was to block NATO’s eastward expansion. But instead, his invasion convinced Finnish and Swedish leaders that there was no real security guarantee for them outside of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Finland has a border of 830 miles with Russia, Europe’s longest, and a history of resisting Moscow’s hegemony. Favoring self-reliance, Finland did not shrink its military after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it pulled along a more reluctant Sweden to apply to NATO together 10 months ago.
But Erdogan has blocked the Swedish application, claiming that the country has become a haven for Kurdish separatists and other dissidents he considers terrorists. So far, Stockholm’s efforts to placate him, including a new terrorism law, have failed.
He has intermittently insisted on the extradition of more than 120 people now in Sweden, as he did again on Friday. Talks will continue in the hope that Turkey will finally approve Sweden’s membership bid after the Turkish elections but before NATO’s summit meeting in Lithuania in mid-July.
Erdogan’s decision opens the way for Turkey’s parliament to ratify Finland’s membership in the alliance, which requires unanimous approval from the 30 nations in the bloc. Hungary is the only other country whose parliament has not ratified the bids by Finland or Sweden. Its leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has warm relations with Putin, has vacillated on when the Hungarian parliament will vote. But he always insists that Hungary has no objection to membership for either Nordic country.
Some Hungarian legislators suggested Friday that they might ratify Finland’s NATO bid on March 27, but following Turkey would hold back on a vote on Sweden.
With elections in Finland on April 2, the country’s current government decided to pass all necessary legislation to join NATO to prevent any period of uncertainty while a new government is formed. So the only remaining issue is to win approvals from the Turkish and Hungarian parliaments.
The two Nordic nations had pledged to enter the alliance “hand in hand.” Sweden, with only a short maritime border, is less exposed to Russia, but Sweden and Finland are closely aligned militarily. After saying that they would apply for NATO membership, both countries were given assurances of military aid from the United States and Britain in case of Russian aggression before they joined the alliance.
On Friday, Niinisto thanked Erdogan for the move to ratify but said at the news conference that Finland’s membership “is not complete without Sweden.” The two countries applied together. But for Finland to reject joining NATO until Sweden is also approved would be politically difficult and strategically risky, and Swedish leaders have made clear they will continue to pursue membership on their own.
The Turkish leader faces a tough reelection battle in mid-May with a troubled economy and high inflation, as well as criticism of his government’s handling of the recent devastating earthquake. The campaign against Kurdish separatism and terrorism is popular politics in Turkey and plays well among opposition voters, too. And many Turks like the attention and leverage that Erdogan’s unpredictability often provides.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Erdogan’s announcement. “This will strengthen Finland’s security, it will strengthen Sweden’s security and it will strengthen NATO’s security,” he said on a visit to Norway. “The most important thing is that both Finland and Sweden become full members of NATO quickly, not whether they join at exactly the same time.” He emphasized that both countries are continuing to integrate into NATO and participating in NATO discussions and exercises.
Orban has signaled support for the two nations’ NATO applications, but his government has slow-walked the issue.
Hungary has wielded its veto power within the European Union over sanctions against Russia to try to secure concessions on other issues, and analysts say Orban appears to be doing the same thing over the bids of both Finland and Sweden. Orban is also known to be annoyed by criticism of Hungary within the EU from Sweden and Finland.
In Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin welcomed the news and said in a Twitter message that “Finland will do its utmost in order that Sweden also becomes a NATO member as soon as possible. Together we are stronger.”
The chair of the Finnish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Jussi Halla-aho, said, “I don’t see it as very meaningful for Finland’s security if Sweden joins NATO later.” Finland in NATO represents “the preventive effect and deterrent,” he told the Finnish state broadcaster Yle. “It is much better for Sweden in terms of their security that Finland is a NATO member.”
Finland, he said, has kept the Swedes informed at every step. “It may be psychologically difficult for them to have to react to Finland’s action,” he said. “But these are psychological problems and not related to any real problems.”