Hungary, Sweden sign fighter jet deal before NATO membership vote

Hungary, the last NATO country to approve Sweden’s membership bid, will hold a parliamentary vote on Monday.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shake hands at a joint news conference in Budapest, Hungary, February 23, 2024 [Bernadett Szabo/Reuters]

Hungary has signed a deal to buy four fighter jets from Sweden, as Budapest finally prepares to approve Stockholm’s bid to join NATO after nearly two years of delays.

“We not only keep our air defence capability but will increase it,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in a news conference alongside Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on Friday of the agreement to buy four Saab JAS Gripen fighter jets.

This “means our commitment to NATO will strengthen and so will our participation in NATO’s joint operations,” Orban added. Hungary will also expand a related logistics contract. It currently leases Gripen aircraft under a contract signed in 2001.

Kristersson welcomed the deal and said that “the conversation has been constructive, and we have agreed to move forward in fields of common interests”.

“We do not agree on everything, but we do agree that we should work more actively together when we have common ground,” he added.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Budapest, Hungary, February 23, 2024 [Bernadett Szabo/Reuters]

Hungary, the final country to approve Sweden’s bid to join the transatlantic military alliance, will hold a vote in parliament on Monday after Turkey’s ratification last month.

The delay in ratifying Sweden’s NATO application soured Budapest’s relations with the United States and raised concerns among its allies.

Sweden sought to join the military alliance in 2022 along with Finland following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Finland became the 31st member of the alliance last April, which doubled the length of NATO’s border with Russia. It also strengthened the defences of three small Baltic countries that joined the bloc after the collapse of the Soviet Union more than three decades ago.

Earlier Friday, Orban told state radio that “some pending [bilateral] military and arms issues” had to be resolved before the vote.

“We are pro-peace, and the Swedes are pro-war in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict,” Orban said. adding the “clear differences in values” could be bridged.

Sweden, which has a long coastline on the Baltic Sea, could become a vital logistics hub for NATO in Northern Europe if it manages to join the bloc.

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Military non-alignment had once been a point of pride for Swedes, with a clear majority against NATO membership, which changed once the Ukraine war started.

Sweden has already regularly participated in NATO exercises in the region.

Orban, who had maintained close economic ties with Russia, had repeatedly delayed Sweden’s ratification citing grievances over Stockholm’s criticism of the rule of law and the state of democracy in Hungary.

The Hungarian leader, who has also refused to send weapons to Ukraine and slammed Western sanctions against Russia, urged for a ceasefire earlier on Friday.

He said a truce was the only solution as “Russia cannot be forced on its knees in the military sense … This conflict [in Ukraine] has no solution on the battleground”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies