Why did Turkey lift its veto on Finland and Sweden joining NATO?

Ankara has signed a trilateral memorandum agreement after obtaining concessions on demands it put forward in May.

NATO officials sit around a table
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hailed the agreement with Finland and Sweden as a triumph [Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via Reuters]

Turkey has lifted its veto over Finland and Sweden’s bid to join NATO, ending a weeks-long dispute that tested the unity of the alliance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The breakthrough on Tuesday came after four hours of talks just before a NATO summit began in Madrid, and allows the gathering of 30 leaders in the Spanish capital to show a united front against Moscow, and start the process of Finland and Sweden’s inclusion in the alliance in earnest.

The announcement of an agreement cements the biggest shift in European security in decades, as the Nordic countries abandon their decades-long neutrality to enter the military alliance.

Here’s a look at why Turkey initially opposed Finland and Sweden’s NATO bid, and why it now backs their membership:

Why did Turkey initially oppose Finland and Sweden’s bid?

  • Turkey surprised its NATO allies when it initially opposed Finland and Sweden’s bid to join the alliance.
  • Ankara demanded that the Nordic countries stop supporting Kurdish armed groups, such as the PKK, and lift their bans on the sales of some arms to Turkey.
  • Turkey raised concerns that Sweden had been harbouring PKK members, which Stockholm denied.
  • NATO operates by consensus, which means that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could have blocked the accession of Finland and Sweden to the 30-nation alliance unless his demands were met, which he had threatened to do.

What is the PKK?

  • The PKK, a designated “terrorist” group in Turkey, the European Union, and the United States, took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984.
  • Tens of thousands of people have died in Turkey as a result of the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK, with the PKK and its offshoots carrying out numerous attacks on military, security forces and civilians, and Turkey conducting operations in southeastern parts of the country with the aim of forcing the PKK out.
  • Turkey considers any support for the Syrian YPG, which it views as an offshoot of the PKK, akin to support for the PKK. The YPG has been backed by many Western nations in the fight against ISIL (ISIS).
  • Turkey has conducted several military operations in both Syria and Iraq over the past few years, targeting the PKK and the YPG.

What did NATO and Turkey agree on?

  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the terms of the deal involved Sweden intensifying work on Turkish extradition requests of suspected fighters and amending Swedish and Finnish law to toughen their approach to them.
  • Stoltenberg also said that Sweden and Finland would lift their restrictions on selling weapons to Turkey.
  • Ankara hailed the agreement as a triumph. The Turkish president’s office said that Turkey had “got what it wanted” from the deal, and that it meant “full cooperation with Turkey in the fight against the PKK and its affiliates,” including the YPG.
  • Finland and Sweden also agreed “not to impose embargo restrictions in the field of defence industry” on Turkey and to take “concrete steps on the extradition of terrorist criminals”.
  • A senior US administration official told Reuters that Turkey had not linked its longstanding request for American F-16 fighter jets to secure the deal. The US has previously blocked Turkey from acquiring F-35 fighter jets after Ankara purchased the S-400 missile defence system from Russia in 2017.
  • Erdogan said before leaving for Madrid that he would push US President Joe Biden on a deal for the F-16 fighter jets. Biden is expected to meet Erdogan during the summit.

What does this mean for NATO and the Russia-Ukraine war?

  • Stoltenberg said NATO’s leaders would issue a formal invitation to Finland and Sweden to join on Wednesday.
  • It will still likely take months for Finland and Sweden to officially join NATO, as their entry into the alliance needs to be ratified by all individual member states.
  • NATO countries, which have already committed billions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine, are expected to agree to a “comprehensive assistance package to Ukraine, to help them uphold the right for self-defence”, Stoltenberg said.
  • Russia has firmly opposed Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO, seeing it as further encroachment of the transatlantic alliance towards Russian territory. NATO was established in 1949 as a defence alliance with the primary aim of confronting the Soviet Union, and is still viewed as a threat by Russia.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies