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Turkey has paved the way for Finland to join NATO but continues to hold up Sweden’s membership, presenting the prospect of the two Scandinavian countries now following separate paths to NATO accession.

“We have decided to initiate the ratification process in our parliament,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a press conference in Istanbul on 17 March 2023, speaking alongside his Finnish counterpart, Sauli Niinistö.

Hungary, which had also help up Finland and Sweden joining the alliance, has followed Turkey in backing Finland’s membership but still holding off on Sweden. In a Facebook post on 17 March Máté Kocsis, parliamentary leader of the ruling Fidesz party, said that it would back Finland’s NATO membership in a ratification vote scheduled for Hungary’s parliament on 27 March.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg makes a press statement on 20 March, flanked by Finnish Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen (right) and Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto. (Photo: NATO)

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 Finland and Hungary simultaneously handed in official letters of application to join NATO on 18 May 2022. However, Turkey, supported by Hungary, has blocked Sweden and Finland from joining the alliance over allegations that both nations have sheltered Kurdish separatists that Turkey considers terrorists.

On the margins of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid a Trilateral Memorandum was established to focus on clearing the barriers to Turkey acceding to Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg convened the third meeting under this Trilateral Memorandum on 9 March 2023.

Following Turkey’s 17 March announcement that it would approve Finland’s membership of NATO, Stoltenberg welcomed the move, saying that “considerable progress has been made in implementing the trilateral memorandum” during the previous week’s meeting” and that “rapid ratifications for Finland and Sweden are in everyone’s interest”.

The NATO secretary general added, however, that “The most important thing is that both Finland and Sweden become full members of NATO quickly, not whether they join at exactly the same time.”

Turkey has been a member of the NATO alliance since February 1952. Under the leadership of Erdoğan, however, who became president in August 2014, the country has sometimes found itself at odds with NATO and the West. In 2019, for example, Turkey was ejected from the US-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme after ignoring US demands that it should compromise the F-35’s stealth technology by acquiring the Russian S-400 air defence system.

Peter Felstead