Will Finland, Sweden Join NATO? Crunch Talks Explained

Sweden and Finland hope to join NATO imminently, with U.S. President Joe Biden welcoming the Nordic countries' leaders to the White House last week and promising full support for their applications. But—crucially—Turkey has so far refused its backing.

The current 30-nation alliance is overwhelmingly in favor of the expansion, not least because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and multiple threats to NATO members.

Turkish, Swedish, and Finnish officials met for talks this week, and diplomats remain confident the two applicants will join before the next NATO summit, in Madrid, ends on June 30.

That leaves only a little more than a week.

Retired ambassador Fatih Ceylan, Turkey's former representative to NATO, told Newsweek: "I'm not sure whether there is enough time left to find common ground."

Here's the latest as the clock ticks down...

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Ankara meeting
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a meeting of his Justice and Development Party at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara on June 15, 2022. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

What Turkey Wants

Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has accused Sweden and Finland of political and financial support for Kurdish militant groups considered terrorist in Turkey: the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and the affiliated Syrian People's Protection Units (YPG).

The PKK is already listed as a terrorist organization in the European Union and U.S., though nations including the United States continue cooperation with the YPG.

Erdogan has demanded Sweden and Finland end all "political support for terrorism" and eliminate all sources of domestic "terrorism financing." Ankara also wants an end to all arms supplies going to Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Turkey is demanding the extradition of "terrorists" from Sweden, a list which reportedly includes Kurdish militants and activists, journalists, and followers of the U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gulen who is accused of fomenting the failed 2016 coup.

Erdogan has also urged Finland and Sweden to lift arms embargoes on Turkey, imposed after Ankara's attack on the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria in 2019.

Will Turkey Get Its Demands?

A spokesperson for the Turkish president said at the end of May that Ankara had already seen a "positive attitude" on the potential lifting of arms embargoes

Sweden is set to introduce tougher anti-terrorism law in July that will cover the provision of support for terrorist organizations like the PKK.

Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Newsweek that Sweden has made a significant effort. "That can provide enough material for the Turkish government if they want an off-ramp and claim a victory domestically," she explained of Sweden's new legislation and assurances.

The Finnish Foreign Ministry told Newsweek in May it remains "important that Finland engages in dialogue with Turkey to work through Turkey's concerns."

"Finland is in contact with Turkey at different levels. We are exploring solutions to address Turkey's concerns. The issues raised by Turkey are not matters that Finland can resolve on its own. However, we believe that these issues can be resolved through diplomatic talks."

The Swedish Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the ongoing discussions. Newsweek has contacted the Turkish Foreign Ministry to request comment.

What the U.S. Can Do

Turkey's opposition to Swedish-Finnish membership is likely also intended as a message to Washington.

Among Erdogan's likely unspoken goals are fresh U.S. sales of F-16 fighter jets, tacit U.S. approval—or at least muted opposition to—a touted fresh offensive into northern Syria, and readmission to the F-35 fighter jet program.

Continued American cooperation with Kurdish militant groups in northern Syria—most notably the YPG-dominated SDF—remains a serious grievance for Ankara.

YPG fighter pictured near Baghouz Syria
A fighter from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), part of the of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is pictured near Baghouz, Syria on February 12, 2019. U.S.-led support for the YPG is a key grievance for Turkey. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

"There are some challenges in bilateral ties between Turkey and the United States," Ceylan—who is the president of the Ankara Policy Center think tank—said. "Maybe it's a message to the United States to focus more on solving—not all—but maybe some of those issues."

The U.S. is said to have been frustrated with Ankara over its opposition, though Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he is confident any problems will be resolved.

At the end of May, a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek: "We will not get into the details of diplomatic conversations, except to say that we are confident Turkey's concerns will be addressed and that we will reach consensus as an alliance on an entry process for Finland and Sweden."

They added that the U.S. is "deeply concerned" about reports of an imminent fresh Turkish operation in northern Syria, which could destabilize the region and imperil U.S. forces deployed in the region.

What's Really Going On?

Erdogan may have overplayed his hand, Aydintasbas said.

"Turkey wanted to get the attention of NATO partners, in particular the United States," she explained. "But as you can see over the next over the last few weeks, the U.S. has been quite unwilling to engage in this conversation, and refused to make it a trilateral issue."

"That has made this exercise a little bit pointless," Aydintasbas added. "In reality, everything that Turkey is saying about Sweden is what they want to scream at Washington, D.C."

With the clock ticking down, it is unclear whether the political will to find common ground will be enough to keep the Madrid summit on track. "It really is a decision of one person—President Erdogan—at this point," Aydintasbas said.

"He may decide that the assurances that Sweden has given are enough, and decide to de-escalate," she explained. Or, the president might continue blocking a deal and drag the issue out into September, when Sweden will hold elections. "I don't think anybody can guess his mind," Aydintasbas added.

Erdogan, however, is not immune to international pressure.

"When there is such high support from many allied capitals for the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, I'm not sure whether Turkey would like to remain as the single ally opposing such an accession," Ceylan said.