VILNIUS: Turkey agreed Monday to allow Sweden to join NATO, setting the stage for the allies to showcase their unity at a summit focused on supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s block on Sweden’s membership bid had cast a cloud over preparations for Tuesday’s meeting, but the countries ironed out their differences in eleventh-hour talks in Vilnius.
“Completing Sweden’s accession to NATO is an historic step that benefits the security of all NATO allies at this critical time. It makes us all stronger and safer,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Kristersson said he was “very happy” and hailed “a good day for Sweden”.
Sweden’s bid must still be approved by the Turkish parliament, and Erdogan has agreed to push for its ratification.
Hungary is also yet to greenlight Stockholm’s bid, but Prime Minister Viktor Orban has signalled he will follow Erdogan’s lead.
US President Joe Biden, also in Vilnius for the summit, thanked Stoltenberg and said: “I look forward to welcoming Prime Minister Kristersson and Sweden as our 32nd NATO ally.”
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also welcomed the “good news” on Twitter.
– Long-awaited decision – Turkey has been holding up Sweden’s application to join the Atlantic alliance, accusing Stockholm of harbouring Kurdish activists Ankara regards as terrorists.
And on Monday, Erdogan upped the stakes, demanding that the European Union revive Turkey’s stalled EU membership bid as a precondition for Sweden joining NATO.
In a statement after the three-way talks between Erdogan, Kristersson and Stoltenberg, Sweden vowed to boost to bilateral trade and anti-terrorism coordination.
“Sweden will actively support efforts to reinvigorate Turkiye’s EU accession process, including modernisation of the EU-Turkiye Customs Union and visa liberalisation,” the statement said.
That agreement came after Erdogan paused his talks with Stoltenberg and Kristersson for a side meeting with EU chief Charles Michel, president of the European Council.
Michel hailed a “good meeting”, adding that they had “explored opportunities ahead to bring EU-Turkey cooperation back to the forefront and re-energise our relations”.
Turkey has been a formal candidate to join the European Union since 2005, and an aspirant since long before that, but talks have long been stalled with little sign of life.
But Monday’s statements imply Ankara and Brussels may move on boosting trade, updating their customs agreements and loosening visa rules in the absence of formal membership talks.
EU members remain sceptical of Ankara’s commitment to democratic and rule of law reforms, and Germany’s Olaf Scholz insisted Sweden and Turkey’s ambitions are not linked.
– ‘Clear signal’ needed for Ukraine – Separately, Ukraine welcomed a move forward in its fight for a guarantee that it will be able to join NATO as a full member if and when it defeats the Russian invasion.
A Western official told AFP the allies will drop the requirement that Kyiv complete a “Membership Action Plan”, a kind of road map to military reform that some allies have had to follow.
Ukraine’s foreign minister said this concession — which Moscow warned would have serious consequences for European security — would shorten Kyiv’s path to NATO membership.
“It is also the best moment to offer clarity on the invitation to Ukraine to become member,” Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.
“Ukraine deserves to be in the alliance. Not now, because now there’s war, but we need a clear signal and this signal is needed right now,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message posted on Telegram.
But NATO leaders remain divided over offering Ukraine a clear route into the alliance in Vilnius.
While Eastern allies are pushing for Kyiv to get an explicit commitment on when it can join, the United States and Germany are reluctant to go beyond an earlier vow that Ukraine will become a member one day.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Ganna Malyar said Kyiv’s troops had established fire control over the “entrances, exits and movement of the enemy around the city” of Bakhmut in the country’s east.
Russian shelling on an aid hub in the town of Orikhiv in southern Ukraine has killed seven people, the emergency services said on Monday.