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Finland Leaves Sweden Behind in Race to NATO Membership

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö on Friday appeared set to receive the nod on Helsinki’s NATO membership from Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who for several months has held up the alliance’s proposed expansion because of political disputes with Sweden.

Sweden and Finland had planned to join NATO at the same time, a proposal supported by the US and other key Western alliance nations. But with Erdogan still blocking Sweden’s bid, Finland is set to press ahead alone.

“It was known that once President Erdogan has for his part made the decision concerning the ratification of Finland’s NATO membership, he would wish to meet and fulfill his promise directly from President to President,” Niinistö said in a statement on Wednesday, during a trip to Turkey in which he visited areas in the southeast of the country devastated by February’s earthquake.

“The Turks have hoped that I will be present when they announce this decision,” the Finnish president said. “Of course, I accepted the invitation and I will be there to receive his expression of will.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg earlier in March expressed the apparent shift away from alliance hopes that Stockholm and Helsinki would be welcomed into NATO together.

“My goal is that both Sweden and Finland should become full members of NATO as soon as possible,” he said, “at least by the Vilnius summit,” referring to the planned alliance meeting in the Lithuanian capital in July.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson echoed the outlook this week, telling reporters: “What we have encountered in recent weeks is that the probability of this happening at different times has increased…At the end of the day, it is not a matter of whether Sweden becomes a member of NATO, but when.”

The 30-nation bloc officially invited Sweden and Finland to join the alliance in 2022, just months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s “special military operation” prompted a historic shift in political and public opinion towards NATO membership, leading both nations to jettison their long-held official neutrality.

Only Hungary and Turkey are yet to approve the dual accession. Both parliaments have repeatedly delayed the debate and ratification process required, although lawmakers in Budapest finally began their discussions in February.

But in Turkey, where presidential and parliamentary elections are looming, and Erdogan’s government is grappling with the earthquake fallout, progress has been slower.

Ankara has expressed concern about Swedish and Finnish arms exports to Kurdish groups in Syria that Turkey considers terrorist organizations, as well as the presence and activism in both countries of pro-Kurdish organizations and those accused of involvement in the failed Turkish coup of 2016. Both Sweden and Finland have accepted some, but not all, Turkish demands.

Stockholm has rankled Erdogan by refusing to extradite Turkish dissidents, with tensions exacerbated by far-right protests in Stockholm at which a Quran was burned. Erdogan then pulled out of the trilateral framework set up to negotiate the dual accession. Renewed talks between the three nations at NATO headquarters in Brussels last week failed to find a breakthrough.

Fatih Ceylan, Turkey’s former representative to NATO, told Newsweek from Ankara that Niinistö is likely to return to Finland from his current trip to Turkey with Erdogan’s approval.

“I think the mood regarding the package deal of Finland and Sweden acceding to NATO has also changed in the alliance and in the United States,” he said.

“I sincerely believe that there will be a deal announced today by both presidents that Turkey will ratify the accession protocol of Finland, probably by mid-April, because in mid-April the parliament will go into recess because of elections,” Ceylan—who is the president of the Ankara Policy Center think tank—added.

“With regard to Sweden, I believe we will have to wait for a while,” he said.

Newsweek has contacted the Swedish Foreign Ministry to request comment.

NATO nations hoped for a rapid agreement on expanding the alliance given the bloc’s long cooperation with Sweden and Finland, plus both nations’ well-funded and modern militaries. The Madrid summit in July 2022 was touted as a celebration of the two accessions but such hopes were dashed. Now, the alliance is eyeing the Vilnius meeting as a formal marking of the newly expanded NATO.

By July, Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections—scheduled for mid-May—will be over. Erodgan is seeking another term but faces a six-party coalition and rising public anger over the perceived mishandling of the February earthquake in which some 46,000 people have been confirmed killed, alongside more than 7,000 who died across the border in Syria.

This week, floods swept through earthquake-affected areas, killing at least 16, inflicting serious material damage, and deepening the challenges faced by those trying to rebuild.

The opposition will be led by long-time social democratic politician Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is running slightly ahead of Erdogan in the polls. This week, Ünal Çeviköz— Kılıçdaroğlu’s chief foreign policy adviser—told Politico that a coalition government would not block Swedish-Finnish accession.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö on Friday appeared set to receive the nod on Helsinki’s NATO membership from Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who for several months has held up the alliance’s proposed expansion because of political disputes with Sweden.

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