Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that Brussels should clear the path for Ankara’s accession to the European Union, before his country approves Sweden’s bid for NATO membership.
Erdogan’s statement, which surprised diplomats, came on the eve of a NATO summit in Lithuania, where Sweden’s membership is on the agenda.
“First, let’s clear Turkey’s way in the European Union, then let’s clear the way for Sweden, just as we paved the way for Finland,” Erdogan said at a news conference.
Erdogan said it was time to act on Turkey’s long-stalled bid to join the EU. “Turkey has been waiting at the gate of the European Union for over 50 years now,” he said, and “almost all NATO member countries are European member countries.”
Turkey claims that Sweden allows members of recognized Kurdish terror groups to operate in Sweden, most notably the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It also alleges that the Swedish government has been complicit in far-right anti-Islam protests.
NATO had been aiming to admit Sweden to the alliance before this week’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania – but Turkey blocked Sweden’s accession due to long-running disagreements between the two countries.
In June – just a couple of weeks before the scheduled NATO summit – Swedish authorities approved a small Quran-burning demonstration outside a mosque in Stockholm which coincided with the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha, one of the most significant in the Islamic calendar.
The decision to permit the protest, made in accordance with the right of freedom of speech, angered Ankara further. Turkish foreign minister Hakan Fidan condemned the decision, saying “to turn a blind eye to such heinous acts is to be complicit in them.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday that it is “still possible to have a positive decision on Swedish membership” at the Vilnius summit, despite Erdogan’s latest announcement.
“We don’t have any certainty, we don’t have any guarantees, but of course now we have the momentum of the summit with the leaders here and we will use that momentum to ensure as much progress as possible,” he said at a press conference in Lithuania.
While Turkey has obstructed Sweden’s membership bid for months, “this is the first time he has made a correlation between Turkey’s long-forgotten EU bid and Sweden’s NATO entry,” Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, told CNN.
“But the wording was vague,” she added. Erdogan said he wanted Brussels to “open the door to the EU” for Turkey, without specifying what that entails. “That could mean anything – from upgrading the free trade agreement to just political statements of support,” Aydintasbas said.
Critics of Erdogan said his new demands meant he had drastically shifted the goalposts so close to NATO’s stated deadline.
But, for Aydintasbas, “he is simply negotiating – and this is how Erdogan negotiates.”
“Erdogan knows that Vilnius is when he can extract maximum concessions from Western partners.”
Before Erdogan’s latest announcement, an Eastern European diplomat told CNN that he “will use the moment to squeeze every drop from this situation and will throw the ball to Sweden – making them hostage of their (own) anti-terrorist laws.”
CNN’s Luke McGee contributed reporting.