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NATO Shouldn’t Let Erdogan Delay Expansion

Since jointly applying to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last spring, Sweden and Finland have received near-unanimous approval from the alliance’s 30 member states. Yet their admission is being held up by a single recalcitrant country making specious demands: Turkey. NATO needs to put a stop to this dispute and welcome its newest members unreservedly.

In his latest fit of pique, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that, due to the recent burning of a copy of the Koran by a Danish far-right activist near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, the Nordic countries “will not see any support from us on the NATO issue.” Because enlarging the alliance requires unanimous agreement, Turkey seems to think it has leverage to extort fellow member states. In exchange for accepting the Swedish and Finnish membership bids, Erdogan has issued a range of demands — most of them directed at Sweden, which Turkey has long criticized for giving shelter to Kurdish separatists. In particular, Turkey wants Sweden to restrict the activities of political groups it accuses of being aligned with Kurdish militants, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a terrorist organization.

Sweden’s center-right government has sought to placate Erdogan by lifting an arms embargo against Turkey, distancing itself from Kurdish fighters in Syria and pledging to pass tougher anti-terrorism laws. The country’s Supreme Court, however, rejected Turkey’s request that Sweden deport a journalist linked to exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a longtime nemesis of Erdogan’s. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson ruled out any further concessions, saying the Turks “want things we cannot or do not want to give them.” Kristersson later described negotiations as “going very well,” but reiterated that Sweden wouldn’t cave to Turkey’s extradition demands. 

As a result, the enlargement process has stalled. Though large majorities in Finland and Sweden support joining NATO, that enthusiasm has limits: Nearly 8 in 10 Swedes oppose compromising the country’s legal principles in order to win Turkey’s approval. And given Erdogan’s need to maintain support among nationalist voters ahead of a presidential election this June, the Turkish leader has little incentive to back down. In response to last weekend’s Koran burning, Turkey canceled a planned trip to Ankara by Sweden’s defense minister. The leader of Sweden’s parliament was also barred from visiting after pro-Kurdish activists hung an effigy of Erdogan during a demonstration in Stockholm.

Turkey’s intransigence doesn’t just jeopardize the Nordic countries’ membership bids; it puts Europe’s wider security at risk. Further delays in adding Finland and Sweden will deprive NATO of the benefit of the two nations’ considerable military and intelligence capabilities at a time when the alliance’s resources are stretched from assisting Ukraine. Having abandoned neutrality to join NATO but lacking the security guarantees that come with full membership, the Finns and Swedes are now uniquely vulnerable to Russian coercion, possibly in the form of attacks on critical infrastructure — which would escalate tensions between Russia and the West and heighten the danger of miscalculation.

The US and Europe need to break this impasse. President Joe Biden should make clear that while Turkey has a right to voice concerns about Kurdish terrorism, it should not come at the expense of efforts to strengthen NATO. Negotiations over the extradition of Turkish nationals should be handled directly with Sweden, distinct from the NATO enlargement process. Alliance leaders should press Erdogan to approve the Nordic countries’ bid no later than May 18, which would be a full year since they applied for membership. If Turkey resists, the US Congress should respond by halting the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Ankara. NATO should reduce Turkey’s participation in joint exercises and sideline Erdogan at the NATO leaders’ summit in July. Expulsion from the alliance — an unprecedented step — should also be on the table.

Bringing Finland and Sweden into NATO is critical to deterring Vladimir Putin and strengthening Europe’s defenses against future threats. The message should be clear: An alliance member that willfully harms the security of the group isn’t an ally at all. 

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Turkey’s 2023 Election Is One to Watch: Bobby Ghosh

• The West Should Send Ukraine Bigger Tanks: Andreas Kluth

• Finland and Sweden Will Make NATO Stronger: Editorial

The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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