26th Sep 2023

Turkey casts fresh doubt on Sweden-Nato deal

  • Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (l), with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg (c), and Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson at the Nato summit in Vilnius (Photo: nato.int)
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Turkey has shifted attention to US warplanes from Koran-burning in endless bargaining on Sweden's Nato entry.

It looked like a done deal on 10 July, when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shook hands with the Swedish prime minister at a Nato summit in Vilnius.

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He also put his signature on a written promise to "transmit the accession protocol for Sweden to the Grand National Assembly [Turkish parliament], and work closely with the assembly to ensure ratification".

In return, Sweden pledged to crack down on anti-Turkish "terrorists" and help Turkey to get EU customs perks and visa-free travel, but declined to ban Koran-burning due to free-speech laws.

And the deal "made history" said Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg at the time.

But as the Turkish parliament prepares to resume work after summer, Erdoğan has spotlighted another demand — for the US to first sell Turkey high-tech F-16 fighter jets.

Erdoğan told press on Sunday (10 September) he had spoken to US president Joe Biden about the purchase in the margins of a G20 summit in India.

In his view, it was the US that was making untoward demands. Biden had linked the F-16 deal to Sweden's Nato bid and "this approach seriously upsets us", Erdoğan said, according to Reuters.

But in another view, it was Turkey that wanted to lock the F-16s into a grand bargain on Sweden.

"It [the F-16 deal] is apparently largely contingent upon agreeing on a sequencing that everyone trusts. Congress is reluctant to approve the sale until Turkey has ratified, whereas Ankara doesn't want to give up its leverage [Sweden] without first getting the sale," said Paul Levin, the director of Stockholm University's Institute for Turkish Studies.

"Both sides [Turkey and the US] publicly deny that there is a linkage between the F-16 deal and Nato enlargement, but my sense is that the former is the key to the latter," Levin added.

Turkey-US defence ties soured four years ago, when Turkey bought an anti-aircraft system from Russia instead of its Nato ally America.

The Turkish foreign ministry didn't reply to EUobserver.

But one Istanbul-based international relations expert and asset manager, Alp Sevimlisoy, gave an insight into feeling in the country.

Turkey should get the F-16s because it "is now the supreme military power in its region" and "the only [Nato] partner with the necessary prowess capable of containing both Russia and China," in the Black Sea area, he told EUobserver.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan's demands on EU customs perks and visa-free travel are less likely to delay Sweden ratification.

The European Commission told EUobserver Nato issues had nothing to do with its technical talks on "resolving trade irritants".

Any breakthrough on visas is also likely to take months, with six out of 72 onerous benchmarks still to meet, instead of coming before Turkey's parliament reconvenes.

But for Levin, Erdoğan wouldn't burn any more goodwill in Nato for the sake of his EU demands alone.

"If, for other reasons, he [Erdoğan] is not ready to drop his [Sweden] veto, he might use that as an excuse. Otherwise no, I don't think those things are important enough to him," Levin said.

"The Swedes and the rest of Nato have the belief that Erdoğan made a firm commitment in Vilnius and that it is only the long summer vacation of the Turkish Grand Assembly that is holding ratification up," said Jamie Shea, a former senior Nato official who now teaches war studies at Exeter University in the UK.

"When the assembly reconvenes in October there will be strong expectations that ratification will move ahead. But expect Erdoğan to talk tough and raise doubts to the end," he added.

Orbán factor

The careful "sequencing" of trust is being further complicated by Hungary, the only other Nato state still to ratify Sweden's bid.

A few days after Erdoğan shook hands on things at the Nato summit in July, Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó also pledged, via a Facebook post: "If there's movement there [in Turkey's stance], then of course we'll keep the promise that Hungary won't delay any country in terms of [Nato] membership".

The Hungarian parliament is to resume work on 25 September, but opposition MPs don't expect prime minister Viktor Orbán to leave his friend Erdoğan on his own in negotiations just yet.

"Orbán is watching Erdoğan and I don't think Hungary will be the last one [Nato state] to ratify," said Ágnes Vadai from the opposition Democratic Coalition party. "Probably they'll arrange it so that the Hungarian parliament votes first, but nobody knows when," she said.

And all that leaves behind the issue of Koran-burning in Sweden, which enraged Erdoğan so much before the summer that he said Swedish police must ban it if Sweden wanted to join Nato.


Various people have kept burning the Muslim holy book in Sweden in separate anti-Islam protests in August.

For Sevimlisoy in Istanbul: "Sweden will answer to Ankara's will".

And if it won't, he said: "It may be time for Turkey to view Finland's already agreed entry into Nato as a satisfactory already achieved, stand-alone in the interim".

"New Koran-burnings and pro-PKK [Kurdish group] demonstrations in Sweden might stir up enough trouble to stall the [Nato] process," Stockholm University's Levin added.

But for the Swedish Institute, a government body which monitors foreign media coverage, Erdoğan isn't pushing that button any more.

"We can see that there has been a lot less coverage in news media as well as in social media during the last Koran burnings, compared to the coverage after the Koran burning on 28 June," it said.

"This goes for the coverage in Turkish and a number of other contexts," it added, with Hungarian-language media also declining to report on the latest burning cases.

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