Will Turkey Drop Its Objections to Sweden’s Accession to NATO?

June 3, 2023
by Enes Esen, published on 3 June 2023
Will Turkey Drop Its Objections to Sweden’s Accession to NATO?

During his most crucial election rally in Istanbul on May 13, just one day before the first round of the presidential elections, Erdogan told his more than two hundred thousand supporters that President Biden gave instructions to remove him from power.  He, therefore, argued that “the ballots tomorrow will give a response to Biden, too." Erdoğan is a tactful politician, and what he said during a campaign does not mean much when it comes to business in the aftermath. This is why it was business as usual when President Biden called Turkey’s President Erdoğan to congratulate him on his re-election. Erdoğan expressed Turkey’s desire to acquire F-16 fighter jets from the United States. Biden, on the other hand, restated his firm conviction that Sweden is ready to become a member of NATO. Sweden’s accession to NATO represents a milestone in shaping the security dynamics of the alliance. Using different pretexts, Erdoğan has consistently hindered Sweden's desired accession to NATO so far. With his triumph in the elections, the good news for NATO members is that they have a window of opportunity to negotiate with Erdoğan.   

Firstly, Erdoğan's objection to the membership of Finland and Sweden in NATO has never been grounded in the principle of combating terrorism. Instead, he has consistently viewed their NATO bids as valuable bargaining chips in his dealings with the Western countries, particularly the United States. Erdoğan has persisting concerns with the US, encompassing issues such as arms sales to Turkey, Turkish military operations in Syria, and federal investigations that potentially involve his family. While one could argue that Sweden’s accession to NATO and these issues are separate matters, this is certainly not the case for Erdoğan. It remains uncertain which issue holds more significance in his mind, but it is clear that he will not yield on Sweden's accession without obtaining something in return. In this context, it appears that the Biden administration considers a linkage between the F-16s and Sweden's accession. In Biden’s words, “Erdoğan still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden, so let's get that done. And so we'll be back in touch with one another." This transactional approach is indeed the right course of action to lift Erdoğan’s veto on Sweden’s long-waited accession.

Secondly, the ending of the elections provides Erdoğan greater flexibility in his negotiations with Western counterparts. His denial of Sweden was also part of his election campaign strategy to consolidate his nationalist constituency. He claimed to be the tough guy against “the Kurdish terrorists” who undermine Turkey’s unity and pose a threat to its survival. To this end, he did not even shy away from fabricating videos where the leaders of the PKK purportedly chanted to support the candidate of the opposition alliance. In the same vein, Erdoğan and his aides frequently have accused Sweden of harboring terrorists. In an interview with CNN in May, “As long as Sweden continues to allow the offshoots of terror groups in Turkey to roam free in Sweden, in the streets of Stockholm, we cannot look favorably on Sweden’s membership in NATO,” Erdogan said. Sweden’s accession could potentially divert attention from Erdoğan's election campaign centered around security concerns and offer ammunition to his adversaries to contest his assertions of being the nation's savior. With the utmost defeat of the opposition, Erdoğan has ample room to maneuver and can even present Sweden’s accession as a foreign policy success. 

Thirdly, Western countries now have more tools at their disposal to pressure Turkey. If Biden and other Western leaders played hardball to push Erdoğan for Sweden’s accession before the elections, Erdoğan could portray himself as a leader who defies the West, an election strategy that always pays well in Turkey. For instance, in the case of the implementation of sanctions that could somehow undermine the Turkish economy, Erdoğan would readily assign blame to the West for Turkey’s structural economic woes. This is one of the reasons why Western leaders mostly refrained from engaging with Erdoğan during Turkey’s election campaigning season. After his re-election, pursuing a confrontation with the West will yield fewer benefits but more damage to him.

Despite his unwavering rhetoric, the end of the campaigning season in Turkey opens up possibilities to persuade Erdoğan to lift his veto on Sweden's accession. If Western leaders, particularly the Biden administration, negotiate with Erdoğan with determination, there is a likelihood that Sweden will be welcomed as the latest member during NATO's Vilnius summit in July.

You may also like

No items found.