This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in the Ambassador Partnership Insights in November 2022.
An article in the New York Times in May 2022 referred to Turkey as a “disruptive ally”. It was looking ahead to NATO’s June Summit in Madrid, fearing that Turkey would veto an otherwise smooth process of Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO. All other allies, except the ever-tardy Hungary, regarded their membership enthusiastically. But Turkey had already sounded a warning. It had flagged to the US the problems for Turkey with Swedish and Finnish membership in March 2022. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a succession of high-level Finnish and Swedish ministers and officials went to Washington to explore the possibility of security guarantees from the US – and even, previously unthinkable, membership of NATO. Turkey had longstanding concerns that the two Nordic countries were harbouring Kurdish terrorists and their active supporters. The US, unfortunately, did not take Turkish warnings seriously enough.
Turkey had longstanding concerns that the two Nordic countries were harbouring Kurdish terrorists and their active supporters. The US did not take Turkish warnings seriously enough. Nick Williams
The ambiguity of the Turkish, Finnish, and Swedish agreement
In the event, at the Madrid Summit, Turkey agreed that Finland and Sweden should be invited to join NATO. This followed a trilateral negotiation in Madrid where a highly demanding President Erdogan placed tough pre-conditions for NATO membership on President Niinistö of Finland and Prime Minister Andersson of Sweden. Their Foreign Ministers then signed a memorandum addressing Turkey’s security concerns in relation to terrorism, paving the way for Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership. Fatefully, this memorandum was deeply ambiguous. Among other things, it committed Sweden and Finland to “facilitate” the extradition of Kurdish terrorists and sympathisers to Turkey while allowing Turkey to insist on its very wide definition of terrorism and terrorists.
On the face of it, it was a triumph for President Erdogan. He achieved everything he wanted: a commitment from Finland and Sweden to fight against terrorism “in all its form and manifestations”; a highly visible fist-bump with President Biden (demonstrating at home Erdogan’s stature as a global statesman who cannot be ignored); and a US commitment to rethink its embargo on the sale of F-16s to Turkey, and even, vaguely, to contemplate the eventual transfer of F-35 technology, to allow the Turkish purchase of the aircraft and construction in Turkey.
A Turkish parliamentary veto on NATO membership?
Finnish and Swedish membership now depends on one final step – democratic acceptance: the ratification by all 30 NATO member parliaments. All but two – Hungary and Turkey – have now ratified. The Turkish parliament, under Erdogan’s watchful sway, are considering very carefully whether his highly exigent interpretation of the trilateral memorandum has been fulfilled, particularly by Sweden, where Erdogan believes that “terrorist groups roam free.” He is exercising his leverage to the full.
Would a Turkish parliamentary veto or a prolonged delay matter? As the bomb attack in Istanbul on 13 November 2022 proved, the terrorist threat to Turkey is real and persistent. It is quite legitimate for an ally to object to the membership of a country that does not meet membership criteria and has an allegedly lax approach to terrorism. After all, in its new Strategic Concept (and agreed upon at the Madrid Summit), NATO considers terrorism, alongside Russia, as one of the two threats facing the Alliance.
In one sense, the damage of a prolonged Turkish veto could be contained. As a result of being invited to join NATO, Finland and Sweden attend every meeting of the North Atlantic Council and its subsidiaries and are as close to actual membership and participation without the formal status. The US and the UK have given them concrete security assurances. Any Turkish veto on membership would result in a workaround. And as NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg has said, it would be “inconceivable” that allies would not come to their aid if attacked. A veto would ultimately prove futile except in powerfully symbolic terms illustrating Turkish exceptionalism.
A veto would ultimately prove futile except in powerfully symbolic terms illustrating Turkish exceptionalism. Nick Williams
Finnish and Swedish membership matters to NATO
Nevertheless, the full accession of Sweden and Finland matters a great deal to NATO and particularly to the US. Without them, it would be difficult, exorbitantly costly, and probably impossible to defend the three exposed Baltic states without the hinterland and springboard that Sweden and Finland would provide to NATO’s military planners. Northern European allies are all adamant in wanting to see the speediest possible integration of the two additional Nordic countries fully into NATO’s strategic defence planning. The US is equally keen. At a time when the US is facing up to its Chinese strategic competitor, it would like the significant assistance that Sweden and Finland can contribute to NATO’s regional defence against Russia. The more that the Europeans can do to defend themselves regionally, the fewer military resources the US would have to commit to NATO. Finnish and Swedish membership of NATO is within the logic of the US “pivot” towards Asia.
Finnish and Swedish membership of NATO is within the logic of the US “pivot” towards Asia. Nick Williams
Allies generally consider it inconsistent and paradoxical for Turkey to be so demanding in relation to membership of Finland and Sweden, but understanding in relation to Russia – which even Erdogan agreed at Madrid is the “most significant and direct threat” to NATO.
Recognising their logic, in January 2023, Turkey showed signs of flexibility. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg has declared that Sweden and Finland have done all that is needed to join the alliance. Due to several anti-Turkish and anti-Islamic demonstrations in Sweden, Turkish foreign minister Çavusoglu said that Turkey could evaluate applications for Finland and Sweden “separately”. He said, “I think it would be fair to distinguish between a problematic country and a less problematic country”. But, so far, both countries insist that their membership bid should be considered as a package.
A profound shift in Turkey’s geo-strategic importance
The episode of Turkey’s resistance to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership is an outward and visible sign of a more profound shift in Turkey’s geo-strategic position. Turkey is more powerful and forceful than at any time in its modern history. It does not need, nor seek, NATO protection and is wary of the demands of US friendship. Indeed, Turkey is fast becoming a semi-detached ally, concerned exclusively with its own neighbourhood and its own regional interests. Moreover, Turkish public opinion is currently at fever pitch against Greece, with its alleged militarisation of the Aegean islands and ever-closer defence ties to France and the US. The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is barely containable, and one spark could set it alight.
Turkey is fast becoming a semi-detached ally, concerned exclusively with its own neighbourhood and its own regional interests. Nick Williams
After the May election, a return to moderation?
Erdogan’s threats to Greece in December 2022 (Turkey “can come suddenly one night” or “[our] missile will hit Athens … unless you stay calm”) is a sign that he is willing to contemplate the unthinkable: an attack by one ally against another. That would mean an irrevocable break with the US, the Alliance, and the European Union. And, ominously, there is no sign of a softening of Turkey’s position on Sweden’s NATO membership, which would benefit NATO as a whole. There is an argument that the May 2023 presidential elections in Turkey are provoking Erdogan to talk tough after which, should he win, he will revert to Turkey’s traditional balancing of its Euro-Atlantic interests, where most of its trade is done, against its Asian and regional preoccupations, where most of its power is exercised. For the sake of NATO unity, allies are hoping that Turkey will once again return to a more moderate and judicious stance. Otherwise, the consequences would not merely be disruptive but calamitous.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or all of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.
Image: Flickr, NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization