UPDATED: Turkeys Erdogan links Sweden NATO bid to return of “terrorists”

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ANKARA, May 18 (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday Sweden should not expect Turkey to approve its NATO bid without returning “terrorists”, and Swedish and Finnish delegations should not come to Turkey to convince it to back their NATO bids.

Earlier, Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the NATO alliance, a decision spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the accession process expected to take only a few weeks despite Turkey’s objections. 

“We have such a sensitivity as protecting our borders from attacks by terrorists organizations,” Erdogan told MPs from his AK Party in parliament.

Erdogan said NATO allies had never supported Turkey in its fight against Kurdish militant groups, including the Syrian Kurdish YPG.

“NATO expansion is only meaningful for us in proportion to the respect that will be shown to our sensitivities,” he said.

Ankara says Sweden and Finland harbour people it says are linked to groups it deems terrorists, namely the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group and followers of Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating a 2016 coup attempt.

Turkish state broadcaster TRT Haber said on Monday Sweden and Finland had not granted approval for the repatriation of 33 people that Turkey requested. 

“So you won’t give us back terrorists but you ask us for NATO membership? NATO is an entity for security, an organization for security. Therefore, we cannot say ‘yes’ to this security organization being deprived of security,” he said.

NATO and the United States have said they were confident Turkey would not hold up membership of Finland and Sweden.

 Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the NATO alliance on Wednesday at allied headquarters, a decision spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and setting in motion an accession process that is expected to take only a few weeks.

Sweden and Finland were both neutral throughout the Cold War, and their decision to join NATO is one of the most significant changes in Europe’s security architecture for decades, reflecting a sweeping shift in public opinion in the Nordic region since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.

“This is a historic moment, which we must seize,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a short ceremony in which the Swedish and Finnish ambassadors to the alliance handed over their application letters, each in a white folder embossed with their national flag.

“I warmly welcome requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO. You are our closest partners, and your membership in NATO will increase our shared security,” Stoltenberg said. The alliance considers that the accession of Finland and Sweden would hugely strengthen it in the Baltic Sea.

Ratification of all 30 allied parliaments could take up to a year, diplomats say.

Turkey has surprised its allies in recent days by saying it had reservations about Finnish and Swedish membership. Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that he thought the issues could be resolved.

“We are determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions,” Stoltenberg said, noting strong support from all other allies.

(L-R) Finland’s Ambassador to NATO Klaus Korhonen, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Sweden’s Ambassador to NATO Axel Wernhoff attend a ceremony to mark Sweden’s and Finland’s application for membership in Brussels, Belgium, 18 May 2022. Finland and Sweden are applying for NATO membership as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The move would bring the expansion of the Western military alliance to 32 member countries. EPA-EFE/JOHANNA GERON / POOL

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