Turkey’s Parliament Backs Sweden’s NATO Membership Bid

Turkey’s Parliament voted on Tuesday to allow Sweden to join NATO, putting the Nordic country one step closer to entering the military alliance and easing a diplomatic stalemate that has clouded Turkey’s relations with the United States and hampered Western efforts to isolate Russia over its war in Ukraine.

The measure passed after a majority of the lawmakers present voted in favor, and it will go into effect once it is published in the country’s official gazette, usually a swift formality. That would make Hungary the only NATO member that has not approved Sweden’s accession, depriving the alliance of the unanimity required to add a new member.

The bill’s passage marks a big moment for NATO by paving the way for expanding its deterrence against Russia at a time when some of its members are struggling to provide Ukraine with enough arms to roll back Russia’s invasion. Sweden’s accession would open a vast stretch of Nordic land to potential military operations by the alliance and extend to Sweden the other members’ automatic protection should it come under attack.

“Being a full-fledged ally means that if Sweden is under pressure or attack, there is no debate” over whether NATO would defend it, said Camille Grand, a former NATO assistant secretary general. “As we see very clearly with Ukraine, you can be the closest NATO partner, but if you’re not an ally, the debate is different.”

Despite Tuesday’s vote, Sweden’s swift accession is not guaranteed. Turkey could delay filing its formal approval with the alliance, and it remains unclear when Hungary might provide its assent.

Before the Turkish vote on Tuesday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary announced that he had invited Sweden’s prime minister to Hungary to “negotiate” Sweden’s accession, suggesting that Hungary may seek concessions in exchange for its support.

Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom of Sweden responded that he did not see “any reason to negotiate,” but that the two countries could “have a dialogue and continue to discuss questions,” according to the Swedish news agency, TT.

The vote came nearly two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when Sweden and Finland, which had been militarily nonaligned for years, formally applied to join the alliance. The process requires the unanimous support of the body’s members (now 31), and most quickly granted their approvals.

But Turkey and Hungary, whose leaders have both maintained cordial relations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia throughout the war in Ukraine, held out.

Hungarian officials have pushed back on Swedish criticisms of the state of Hungarian democracy, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey accused the two Nordic nations of neglecting his country’s security concerns by failing to crack down on dissidents whom Turkey considers terrorists.

Officials from other NATO countries quietly accused Mr. Erdogan of leveraging the alliance’s rules for domestic political gain while publicly lobbying Turkey to change its stance.

Sweden has taken extensive steps to assuage Turkey’s objections, including by amending its Constitution to allow for tougher antiterrorism laws.

In March, both Hungary and Turkey changed course on Finland, and their respective parliaments approved the country’s accession. It joined NATO soon after.

But Mr. Erdogan continued to resist Sweden’s bid, offering reasons that changed over time and prompting a diplomatic guessing game over what issue he would drag into the debate next.

Before a summit in July, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, announced that Turkey had agreed to back Sweden’s accession bid. Days later, Mr. Erdogan told the Turkish news media that Sweden still needed to do more and that the issue rested with Parliament, not with him.

Also hampering talks over the issue were public burnings and desecrations of the Quran by protesters in Sweden, which prompted Turkey to accuse the Swedish authorities of not doing enough to combat Islamophobia.

Mr. Erdogan also linked the Sweden issue to Turkish demands from other NATO members. He suggested that simultaneously with Turkey backing Sweden, the United States approve the sale of a $20 billion package of American-made F-16 fighter jets and upgrade kits for jets that Turkey already has. The Biden administration has said it supports the deal, but it has faced resistance in Congress, with members citing the country’s human rights record and its stance on Sweden, frustrating the Turks.

And Mr. Erdogan used the issue to pressure Canada, another NATO member, which has imposed export restrictions on optical equipment that Turkey uses in its drones.

Sweden’s approval appeared to be moving forward in December, when the Turkish Parliament’s foreign affairs committee passed the measure and sent it to the full assembly, in which Mr. Erdogan’s political party and its allies hold a majority. But it was not scheduled for a vote until this week.

Sinem Adar, an associate at the Berlin-based Center for Applied Turkey Studies, said it remained unclear what Mr. Erdogan had gained by holding up Sweden’s bid and that the move had cost Turkey by making the country appear unpredictable and unreliable to its NATO allies.

“There is a very significant erosion of trust, which was already weakened, between Turkey and its allies in NATO because at a very important geopolitical moment, Turkey put its own interests ahead of the interests of the alliance,” she said.

Hungary remains the final holdout. Hungarian officials have said they would not block Sweden’s bid if Turkey approved it, but the timing of Hungary’s decision was not immediately clear, nor were the reasons for its foot-dragging.

Over the past year, Hungary has given a wide range of explanations for the delay. It initially cited technical reasons related to the Parliament’s schedule but later complained about a video shown in Swedish schools that cast Mr. Orban’s government in a bad light and accused Sweden of showing insufficient respect for Hungarian democracy.

Mr. Orban, the Kremlin’s only reliable partner in the European Union, last month vetoed a plan by Europe to throw Ukraine a financial lifeline worth $52 billion and has repeatedly broken ranks with his nominal allies.

Mr. Grand, the former NATO assistant secretary general and now a defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said he assumed leaders in Budapest and Ankara were coordinating their moves and that he had become “more cautious” about predicting Sweden’s quick entry into the alliance.

But after nearly two years, he added, “I think we are now at the point where it becomes sort of ridiculous to further delay it.”

Andrew Higgins contributed reporting from Warsaw and Safak Timur from Istanbul.