Why Turkey changed its stance on Sweden’s NATO membership

Ankara supports Stockholm’s bid after it receives backing on key conditions that range from buying US F-16s to visa-free travel to Europe’s Schengen area.

Turkish and Swedish leaders shaking hands at NATO summit
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, right, shake hands next to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Vilnius, Lithuania [Henrik Montgomery /TT News Agency/via Reuters]

Turkey has agreed to allow Sweden to join NATO after closed-door negotiations between NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and the leaders of the two countries ahead of a NATO summit in Lithuania.

“Completing Sweden’s accession to NATO is an historic step that benefits the security of all NATO allies at this critical time,” Stoltenberg said at a press conference in Vilnius late on Monday.

Hours after Ankara’s decision was revealed, the administration of United States President Joe Biden announced it will move forward with the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey in consultation with the US Congress, in what seemed to be a trade-off for Ankara’s green light to Stockholm’s NATO membership.

Separately, the Pentagon said on Tuesday that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin discussed his country’s role in Turkey’s military modernisation with Turkish Defence Minister Yasar Guler on the phone – another indication that negotiations over Sweden’s entry were helped along by a US-Turkey defence deal.

Ankara sought to purchase US F-16s and modernise the ones it already owns as compensation for its 2019 removal from a US-led international programme developing and producing new F-35 fighter jets. Washington sacked Turkey from the popular scheme after its purchase of the S-400 defence system from Russia despite warnings from the US.

The development led to a bilateral crisis between the two allies and Washington’s imposition of sanctions on Turkey in December 2020 in the area of defence under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) – the first time such sanctions targeted a NATO member.

This made Ankara’s veto on Sweden’s NATO bid a thorn in an already rocky relationship with the West for more than a year. Sweden and Finland applied for membership in May 2022 following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Turkey’s wider agenda

According to Galip Dalay, a non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, Sweden’s membership of NATO has been a subheading in Turkey’s agenda towards the West, and more specifically towards the US.

“Ankara’s expectations over F-16s from Washington have been apparent in this process from day one. However, Turkey also sought a general normalisation and improvement in its relations with the EU countries and the US in general through Sweden’s process, using it as a peg,” Dalay told Al Jazeera.

According to a joint statement released after the talks late on Monday, Sweden agreed to work closely with Ankara to address the latter’s security concerns through annual trilateral talks that include NATO. Echoing a similar, unimplemented deal negotiated in Madrid in 2022, Stockholm affirmed that its “counterterrorism” efforts would continue after its entry into the alliance.

Sweden reiterated that it will not provide support to Kurdish fighter groups, and the organisation Turkey describes as the “Fethullah Terror Organisation”, which is accused of a failed 2016 coup that took hundreds of lives.

Dalay said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to make an example out of Sweden to deliver a message to the West about his concerns over “terrorism”.

“Ankara wants to make Sweden change its laws to be stricter on terrorism to have a spillover effect on other Western allies, pushing them to do same towards the groups Ankara considers as terrorists,” he told Al Jazeera.

Dalay also said Erdogan achieved what he wanted regarding Turkey-European Union ties by linking, practically in writing, Ankara’s issues with the bloc to Sweden’s NATO bid.

The joint statement referred to Turkey’s frozen EU accession process, with Sweden expressing support for efforts to revive the membership talks. Ankara has been a membership candidate since 2005, and negotiations have not progressed since 2016.

The joint statement also saw Stockholm promise to “actively support efforts” in two areas Ankara wanted improved: modernisation of the EU-Turkey Customs Union and visa liberalisation.

Ankara has condemned repeatedly the increase in rejected Schengen visa applications by Turkish citizens, demanding visa-free travel for Turks in Europe.

EU officials say Ankara needs to work on the bloc’s criteria to get the concession and claim that there is no ill-treatment of applications by Turkish citizens.

Turkey has also sought for years changes in the customs union it has had with the EU since 1996. The EU has not agreed to start talks over the issue despite calls from Ankara and commerce communities in both countries.

Erdogan links EU and NATO issues

Before Vilnius, Erdogan linked Stockholm’s NATO bid to restarting Turkey’s EU talks – a request rejected by Washington and Berlin right away.

“First, come and open the way for Turkey at the European Union and then we will open the way for Sweden, just as we did for Finland,” he said before he travelled on Monday.

Marwan Kalaban, the director of policy analysis at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, said the Turkish president knew that this condition would not be met when he made the statement.

“Erdogan tried to make the best out of this bargain from Sweden, the US and the EU,” he told Al Jazeera.

He added, however, that Erdogan also wanted to avoid a possible wider crisis with the West as his country went through its worst economic turbulence in decades.

Dalay said Erdogan increased the stakes by linking Turkey’s EU and Sweden’s NATO ambitions to acquire the backing he wanted over the customs union and visa-free travel.

Ankara has not made an official statement on the deal yet and Sweden’s NATO entry will only happen after ratification by Turkey’s parliament, for which there is no timeline yet.

The closed-door deal means the topic is off the agenda of the two-day NATO summit in Vilnius.

A similar deal agreed in Madrid in June 2022 did not lead to membership for Sweden as Ankara was not satisfied with Stockholm’s implementation of the agreement, especially its efforts to counter “terrorism”.

Since then, Sweden made changes to its constitution and other laws to strengthen regulations in the area, taking a tougher stance on gatherings in support of banned groups and attempts to collect or provide financial aid for them.

Source: Al Jazeera