Biden begins three-nation tour with UK visit before NATO summit

US President Joe Biden visits UK before heading to Lithuania for a NATO summit focused on the conflict in Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, July 10, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
US President Joe Biden meets with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, July 10, 2023 [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

United States President Joe Biden has kicked off a three-nation trip, dominated by a NATO summit aimed at showing solidarity with Ukraine amid disagreements over Kyiv’s possible accession into the alliance.

Biden arrived in the United Kingdom, a key US ally, late on Sunday.

“Our relationship is rock solid,” Biden said on Monday, as he met Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street.

Their discussions are set to include the upcoming NATO summit, which starts in Vilnius on July 11, and the Ukraine war.

“As we face new and unprecedented challenges to our physical and economic security, our alliances are more important than ever,” Sunak said in a statement.

“The UK is Europe’s leading NATO ally, we are the United States’ most important trade, defence and diplomatic partner, and we are at the forefront of providing Ukraine with the support they need to succeed on the battlefield,” he added.

Biden will also Britain’s King Charles for the first time since his May coronation, the White House said, to hold talks focusing on climate change and the environment.

NATO summit in Lithuania

At the NATO summit in the Lithuanian capital on Tuesday and Wednesday, Western allies will discuss helping Ukraine oust invading Russian forces.

Biden is expected to use the summit to pressure Turkey into dropping its opposition to Sweden’s NATO membership bid.

Ankara has accused Stockholm leniency toward groups it regards as a security threat, including Kurdish armed groups and people associated with a 2016 coup attempt.

In a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday, Biden “conveyed his desire to welcome Sweden into NATO as soon as possible,” the White House said.

The two leaders “expressed their shared commitment to continue supporting Ukraine,” the statement added.

Erdogan’s office said that he would meet Biden on the sidelines of the summit.

The talks will focus on “Ukraine’s position in NATO, Sweden’s NATO membership, and the delivery of F-16” fighter jets, which Turkey hopes to secure from the United States, the Turkish presidency said.

Before leaving the US, Biden said he would resist calls for promising Ukraine quick entry into the alliance – a move Erdogan expressed public support for on Saturday.

Entry into NATO requires unanimous consent from all 31 members. Ukraine has demanded that the military alliance give a clear path to membership at this week’s summit, but the US and Germany have been hesitant about welcoming a country at war that still needs to undergo some democratic reforms, insisting the focus should instead be on supplying weapons and ammunition.

“I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war,” Biden said in a CNN interview previewing his trip.

He urged caution, noting the alliance could get drawn into the war with Russia due to NATO’s mutual defence pact.

NATO could decide to elevate its relationship with Ukraine, creating what would be known as the NATO-Ukraine Council, which would give Kyiv a seat at the table for consultations.

A centrepiece of Biden’s visit to Lithuania will also be a speech at Vilnius University on Wednesday night, in which he will share his vision of “a strong, confident America flanked by strong, confident allies and partners taking on the significant challenges of our time, from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine to the climate crisis”.

Nordic leaders’ meeting in Finland

Biden’s final stop in Europe will be Helsinki where he will hold talks with the leaders of Finland, NATO’s newest member, and attend a summit of US and Nordic leaders.

He will be the first US president to visit Helsinki since Donald Trump went five years ago to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Finland ended a history of nonalignment to become NATO’s 31st member on April 4.

While Finland and Sweden had filed a joint bid to access the military alliance in May 2022, Stockholm’s application was held back by Erdogan.

Sweden recently changed its “anti-terrorism” legislation and lifted an arms embargo on Turkey. But a man burned a Quran outside a mosque in Stockholm last month, and Erdogan signalled that this would pose another hurdle.

Turkey and the US are also at an impasse over the sale of F-16 fighter jets. Erdogan wants the upgraded planes, but Biden says Sweden’s NATO membership has to be dealt with first.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies