Swedish leader: Finland likely to join NATO before Sweden

HELSINKI (AP): Sweden’s prime minister acknowledged Tuesday that it is increasingly likely that neighbor Finland will join NATO before his country does, due to Turkey’s opposition to the Swedish bid.

Ulf Kristersson said during a news conference in Stockholm on Tuesday that it has been clear since NATO’s Madrid summit in June that Finland’s road into membership has been smoother than Sweden’s, and that it is now increasingly likely that Finland will enter NATO first.

Turkey accuses both nations, but particularly Sweden, of being too soft on groups it deems to be terror organizations or existential threats to Turkey, including Kurdish groups. Last month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara has fewer problems with Finland joining.

Since they announcing their intention to join the military alliance in May last year, Finland and Sweden have consistently stressed that they would become members of the military alliance at the same time “hand in hand.”

Now, however, Kristersson told reporters, “it’s not out of the question that Sweden and Finland will be ratified in different stages.”

All 30 existing members of NATO have to approve a new member. They all signed the accession protocols for Finland and Sweden last year, and 28 of them have ratified the texts for both countries. Hungarian lawmakers earlier this month started debating the Nordic duo’s membership bids and Budapest may ratify them by the end of March, leaving Turkey as the final holdout. It says it is still seeking guarantees and assurances from the two countries.

Oscar Stenström, who is the chief Swedish government negotiator in the NATO accession process, said that Stockholm has done what has been required to be approved by Turkey. Among other things, Sweden last week presented a draft law to parliament aimed at making it illegal to support or participate in terrorist organizations — something that is hoped to reduce NATO opposition from Turkey.

The activities of groups in Sweden and Finland that Ankara considers to be terrorists is one of the main objections by Turkey to the Nordic duo, and particularly Sweden, joining NATO. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has waged a 38-year insurgency against Turkey that has left tens of thousands dead. It is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S and the European Union.

Sweden has a Kurdish diaspora of around 100,000 people, while there are estimated 15,000 Kurds living in Finland.

Last week, representatives from Sweden, Finland and Turkey met at NATO headquarters in Brussels after a hiatus of several weeks in attempt to clear the path to the Nordic nations’ membership.

Kristersson said Tuesday that the ultimate decision is in Turkey’s hands and that Sweden is ready to handle a situation where Finland enters NATO without Sweden.

He repeated what NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said previously, that it would only be a delay.

“Basically, this is not about whether Sweden becomes a NATO member but about when Sweden becomes a NATO member,” Kristersson told reporters.