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Erdoğan links Sweden’s Nato bid with Turkey’s EU accession

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has tied Ankara’s approval of Sweden’s Nato bid to his country’s efforts to enter the EU, in a fresh blow to Stockholm’s attempt to join the military alliance.

“I call out to those who have kept Turkey waiting at the EU door for more than 50 years, pave the way for Turkey and we will pave the way for Sweden,” Erdoğan said at a press conference on Monday as he prepared to depart for a pivotal Nato summit in Lithuania. 

Washington and European capitals have been pressing Ankara to approve Sweden’s accession to Nato ahead of the summit after the Nordic country broke with generations of neutrality following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

Sweden has made several concessions in an attempt to woo Ankara, including the passage of a new anti-terrorism law, but Erdoğan has insisted Stockholm takes further measures, including curbs on public demonstrations by supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK). 

“Sweden’s stance on the terrorist organisation PKK is obvious. What is your stance on Nato membership?” Erdoğan asked. 

The unexpected demand comes hours before Erdoğan meets EU Council president Charles Michel in Vilnius ahead of the Nato summit. 

EU officials admitted surprise at the timing but said the demand hearkened back to the Turkish leader’s high-wire diplomatic blackmail over the 2015 migration crisis. “Erdoğan is upping the ante,” said an EU official who declined to be named. “It’s a bit over the top.”

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, said Sweden could still be ratified this week, despite Erdoğan’s latest demand. Stoltenberg said he backed Ankara’s bid to join the EU, while insisting Stockholm had already met the conditions required to join the 31-member alliance.

“What we agreed in Madrid [last year] was a specific list of conditions that Sweden has to meet to be a full member of the alliance and Sweden has met these conditions,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference on Monday, adding: “It’s still possible to have a positive decision on Sweden in Vilnius.”

Nato requires all existing members to ratify applicants in order for them to join the western alliance. The only other holdout on Sweden’s application is Hungary, but analysts say Budapest is likely to follow Ankara’s lead.

Stockholm’s decision last month to allow a Koran to be burnt at a protest outside of a mosque at the start of an important Muslim holiday has also seriously worsened tensions between Ankara and Stockholm. One former senior Turkish diplomat described the Koran burning as “very stupid” and said he doubted Ankara would agree to Sweden’s Nato accession. 

Turkey’s move to link Sweden’s Nato request with Turkey’s long-stalled attempt to join the EU presents yet another hurdle. Erdoğan will meet Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson, US president Joe Biden and other international leaders in Vilnius.

The Turkish president on Monday said he would lobby for a restart in Turkey’s EU accession talks and for the US Congress to approve the purchase of billions of dollars worth of F-16 fighter jets.

The Biden administration has been supportive of Turkey’s request to buy the aircraft, but analysts expect Turkey will need to approve Sweden’s Nato bid to unlock the deal. 

Turkey launched its bid to join the European Economic Community in 1987 and was declared eligible for potential membership to the EU 12 years later. But relations have deteriorated as Erdoğan, who is entering his third decade as Turkey’s leader, has slid towards autocracy. 

Following nationwide protests in 2013 and a coup attempt three years later, Erdoğan has eroded civil liberties and undertaken a big purge in the judiciary, military, government institutions and academia. The European parliament voted in 2019 to suspend Turkey’s EU accession talks.

Turkey’s move in 2021 to pull out of a landmark Council of Europe treaty that aims to prevent violence against women, known as the Istanbul Convention, also prompted deep consternation in the EU. 

Additional reporting by Funja Güler in Ankara

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