Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has lifted his veto on Finland’s application to join Nato, a move that will strengthen the west’s ability to withstand any future Russian threat across the Baltic Sea but leaves Sweden’s parallel bid for Nato membership unresolved.
After a choreographed meeting with the Finnish president, Sauli Niinistö, in Ankara, Erdoğan said he would recommend to the Turkish parliament that it vote to back Finland’s application to join. He said he hoped the vote would happen before the Turkish elections in May.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Finland, which shares an 832-mile (1.340km) border with Russia, was forced to reconsider the foundations of its foreign and security policy and apply for Nato membership. It would be the 31st member of the alliance.
At a joint press conference, Erdoğan said Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish terrorist activity in Finland had been addressed. “Turkey is one of the strong defenders of Nato’s open-door policy,” he said. Finland had taken “concrete and authentic steps” to meet Turkey’s security concerns, and “with Finland’s membership Nato will become stronger”.
Niinistö said to Erdoğan: “Now we have got an answer, thank you,” but he added: “Finnish Nato membership is not complete without Sweden.” He expressed the hope that both countries would be permitted to join Nato at its summit in Vilnius in July.
Erdoğan has been demanding that Finland and Sweden do more to clamp down on Kurdish activists, but his objections about Sweden’s behaviour are more deep seated.
On Thursday, Niinistö visited Turkey’s Kahramanmaraş province, which was at the centre of the 6 February earthquake that killed more than 48,000 people, and he said he was shocked by what he had seen.
Hungary is now the only other Nato member still to approve Finland’s membership, and it is expected to relent next week rather than be left isolated within the alliance.
Sweden and Finland, for diplomatic and security reasons, had originally treated their application last May as a simultaneous request since joint membership had a compelling reinforcing military logic. But after talks with Sweden, Finland decided reluctantly to press ahead with a membership bid of its own.
The Swedish prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, said on Wednesday: “I don’t hide the fact that we would have preferred ratification together and hand in hand. But we respect that each country makes its own ratification decision.”
The decision complicates Nato defence planning, but the complexity depends on how long Turkey keeps Sweden in the Nato waiting room. Jans Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, said he could not consider the circumstances in which Nato would not come to Sweden’s defence if attacked by Russia.
Erdoğan has been seeking assurances from Finland and Sweden to eradicate members of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), an organisation designated as terrorist by the European Union. He said there should be “no place for any terror group no matter what their name or aim”.
Last June, Finland and Sweden signed a 10-point memorandum with Turkey to address Ankara’s security concerns, but its contents were open to interpretation as to what it required the Nordic countries to do to clamp down on Kurdish activists.
In December, Finland loosened its strict embargo on arms exports to Turkey imposed in 2019 after Turkey’s attack on northern Syria.
Erdoğan, politically weakened at home before elections in May, may hope that by accepting Finland’s application he can show he can cooperate with the west and dispel suggestions that his nationalism has damaged the country economically.
Finland’s parliament has already approved joining Nato, but the bill would need to be signed into law by the president within three months, setting a deadline on how long it needs to wait.
Hungary’s president, Viktor Orbán, has repeatedly delayed approving Sweden and Finland’s membership, accusing both countries of spreading lies about the state of democracy and the independence of the judiciary in his country. Hungary is looking for EU funds to be unlocked, but Orbán may not relish being the last country blocking Nato’s expansion and his officials have indicated that parliament will discuss the issue on Monday. Orban met Erdoğan on Thursday.
US officials believe Turkey has been trying to use its Nato veto power as a bargaining chip to extract extraneous concessions, including that the US Senate lift its objections to the sale of F-16 jets. US senators, sensing that Erdoğan may be heading for defeat in the elections and eager to see a new, more cooperative president in his place, are not willing to grant Erdoğan any pre-election favours.