For months, NATO leaders have hoped that when they gather for their annual summit next week, they will be able to use the occasion to welcome Sweden as the alliance’s newest member.
That outcome now looks all but impossible as delays by Hungary and continued objections by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey have dragged out the process, raising questions about when Sweden might join and what kind of breakthrough would be needed.
All 31 member states must agree to admit new members, and the split over Sweden risks undermining the alliance’s ability to project a united front against Russian President Vladimir Putin as his forces seek to repel a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
NATO officials say the hope is to get all alliance leaders to agree at a two-day summit scheduled to begin Tuesday in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, to allow Sweden to join. Then Mr Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are believed to be able to push approval through their parliaments.
To that end, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, met foreign ministers and senior intelligence officials from Turkey, Sweden and Finland in Brussels on Thursday in an effort to convince the Turks that Sweden, like Finland, has done enough to overcome Turkish objections.
“We all agreed that we made good progress,” he told a press conference afterward. “We all want to complete this process as soon as possible.”
So in Vilnius on Monday, Stoltenberg said, he will meet Mr. Erdogan and Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristerson to try to get Mr. Erdogan’s agreement to support Sweden’s membership of the summit, followed by ratification from the parliament.
“Now is the time for Sweden to join the alliance,” Mr Stoltenberg said. “A further delay in Sweden’s membership would be welcomed” by Kurdish terrorists and Mr. Putin, he said.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó told reporters on Tuesday that he was in touch with his Turkish counterpart and that if Turkey’s position changed, Hungary would not obstruct the process.
That leaves the ball in Mr. Erdogan’s court, and if next week’s summit ends without an agreement, it is unclear what will break the deadlock. NATO officials worry that Sweden’s membership could drag on for months, a symbolic win for Putin and a loss for the alliance.
At the same time, Mr Stoltenberg claimed in an interview that Sweden had already participated in all NATO meetings and in defense planning and military exercises. But Sweden will remain outside NATO’s commitment to collective defense, the alliance’s main goal.
“If there is no agreement in Vilnius, then we have a crisis in NATO, period,” said Mark Pierini, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and a former European Union ambassador to Turkey.
On Wednesday in Washington, President Biden met with Mr Kristerson to reiterate US support for Sweden’s membership. Mr Biden said he was “looking forward” to that day, but acknowledged the decision was in Mr Erdogan’s hands.
“I want to reiterate that the United States fully, fully, fully supports Sweden’s membership in NATO,” Mr. Biden said. “The bottom line is simple: Sweden will make our union stronger.”
In the 14 months since Sweden applied to join, the question of its accession has found itself entangled in a web of issues including international arms agreements and competing conceptions of terrorism and freedom of expression.
Turkey has accused Sweden of providing a free working environment for Turkish dissidents, whom Turkey considers terrorists. They include members of a religious movement that Turkey has accused of trying to overthrow Mr Erdogan in 2016 and supporters of a Kurdish militant group fighting a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state.
Sweden tried to meet Turkey’s demands by amending its constitution and strengthening its anti-terrorism laws, which only came into effect on June 1. It also agreed to extradite some people wanted by the Turks.
After Thursday’s meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan told a televised news conference that changes to Sweden’s anti-terrorism law must now be put into effect.
Last month, Sweden’s Supreme Court ruled that Sweden could extradite a Turk wanted in Turkey for drug offences. He told the court that he was targeted because he supported a pro-Kurdish political party.
But Swedish courts have blocked at least one other extradition, saying a journalist wanted by Turkey had not committed acts considered crimes in Sweden.
“If you look at Turkey, of course the aim is and has been for more than a year to extract as many concessions as possible from Sweden before it agrees to join,” Mr Pierini said. “If you look at Sweden’s point of view, they are trying to protect their concept of the rule of law.”
Mr Stoltenberg and other NATO leaders said Sweden had done enough and should be allowed to join the alliance. Many analysts also suspected that Mr. Erdogan’s hard line on Sweden was aimed at nationalist voters in Turkey’s presidential election in May.
But Mr Erdogan’s position has not changed since he won a third term and he again attacked Sweden after a protester publicly burned a Koran at a demonstration in the Swedish capital Stockholm last week, accusing Sweden of failing to tackle Islamophobia . The attack appeared to be aimed at derailing talks with NATO and was carried out in front of a major mosque on one of Islam’s most important holidays.
“We have clearly stated that our red line is the decisive fight against terrorist organizations and Islamophobia,” Erdogan said after a meeting with his cabinet on Monday. “The sooner our colleagues accept this reality, the healthier this process will be.”
The incident disappointed NATO officials, who noted that combating Islamophobia was not among the issues the countries had agreed to work on to facilitate Sweden’s bid to join. And the Swedes pointed out that the police tried to ban the protest, but were rejected by the courts.
The issue is key for Mr. Erdogan, who markets himself to his conservative, religious base at home as a global champion of Islamic causes.
“When it comes to giving the impression to the local public that this is a government that actually puts its money where its mouth is, this is a consistent attitude,” said Ahmet Kasim Khan, a professor of international relations at Beykoz University in Istanbul. “It goes very well with the public image of the president himself.”
Mr Khan said the paths to a breakthrough remain. Sweden could do more to meet Turkey’s demands, he said, or the United States and other NATO members could add “sweeteners” such as arms or economic deals for the Turks. Thawing the frosty relationship between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Biden would also help; the US president did not welcome Mr Erdogan to the White House, unlike his three predecessors.
“Turkey either wants to have strong sympathies and act on its own security concerns, or it wants to make a grand bargain with Berlin, Brussels and Washington on issues that touch on larger foreign and security policy agendas,” said Mr. Khan.
The Biden administration has pushed hard for NATO expansion. Turkey wants to buy $20 billion worth of F-16 fighter jets and other equipment from the United States, but administration officials rejected the idea that Mr. Biden would use that to pressure Mr. Erdogan to expand NATO.
Mr. Biden mentioned Sweden and the arms deal together when he told reporters last month about his conversation with Mr. Erdogan to congratulate him on his re-election.
“He still wants to work on something on the F-16,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Erdogan. “I told him we want a deal with Sweden, so let’s do it.”
But congressional opposition to the plan is hardening. Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, added his voice Thursday to a growing chorus of influential members of Congress who oppose sending F-16s to Turkey, calling the idea anathema “until Sweden’s adoption is behind us us.”
Mr. McConnell’s opposition, which he discussed in an interview with Punchbowl News, strengthens the blockade led by Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has repeatedly vowed to oppose the sale unless Turkey become “less belligerent” towards its NATO allies.
Because the State Department did not make an emergency declaration, the Biden administration cannot proceed with the F-16 sale until top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate foreign affairs panels at least agree to it.
Safak Timur and Karun Demirjian contributed reporting.