Sweden's new government unlikely to derail Nato accession, analysts say

Turkey poses a significant obstacle to the country and its Nordic neighbour Finland joining the alliance

Ulf Kristersson (left), leader of Sweden's Moderate Party and Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, before a televised debate with other party leaders in Stockholm on September 9, 2022. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on September 14 announced that she would resign after an unprecedented right-wing and far-right bloc appeared on course to win the general election. AFP
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A shock outcome of Sweden's general election has resulted in the demise of the prime minister who lodged the country's application to join Nato. However, analysts do not see the emergence of a new prime minister throwing up new obstacles to the historic decision.

Breaking with a long history of neutrality, Sweden and Finland both requested to join Nato after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. The Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, who has led the accession talks, last week conceded defeat and announced she would resign after a surge in support for a nationalist party helped the right-wing opposition triumph.

Swedish politicians will likely continue supporting the move, despite the large gains made by the historically anti-Nato Sweden Democrats during the September 11 election.

The party, which has neo-Nazi roots, will try to “tone down its sceptical attitude towards the EU and Nato,” said Robert Dalsjo, senior analyst with the Swedish Defence Research Agency.

Spain on Thursday became the 26th country out of Nato's 30 members to ratify Sweden and Finland’s entry to the alliance. The procedure enjoys wide support.

But one country has thrown a spanner in the works: Turkey, a Nato partner which houses a US military airbase.

Turkey threatened at first to block Sweden and Finland’s accession, seemingly mostly aggrieved with Sweden’s sympathy for Kurdish militants viewed as terrorists in Ankara.

But then Turkey lifted its veto in June at the same time as President Joe Biden’s administration said that it publicly supported Ankara’s years-long request to purchase F-16 fighter jets.

Mr Biden is expected to intensify pressure on Congress to approve the sale of F-16s to Turkey in an attempt to enable Sweden and Finland to join Nato, analysts told The National.

“The pressure to come to a resolution is very powerful,” said Zachary Selden, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Mr Biden at a Nato summit in Madrid in June.

It became evident that an “informal link” was established between Turkey’s ratification of Sweden and Finland’s Nato accession deal and its ability to purchase F-16s, Sinan Ulgen, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, told The National.

US and Turkish officials have been reluctant to link the two issues in public. The New York Times in June reported that senior American officials said they “did not bargain” with Turkey in exchange for agreeing to Sweden and Finland joining Nato.

The US blocked Turkey from purchasing F-35s after Ankara bought S-400 missile systems from Russia in 2017. Washington interpreted this as Ankara edging closer to Moscow.

Turkey wants F-16s instead and, while the White House supports their sale to Ankara, Mr Biden must try to change the position of the US Congress, which has been increasingly hostile to Turkey since a 2019 military operation in Syria.

Mr Biden must certify that Turkey has not breached Greek airspace for 120 days. He must also agree that the sale of the jets is in the US national interest to change the amendment of the defence authorisation blocking it that was passed by Congress in July.

“I think that the president [Biden] can twist some arms. Members of his own party put the amendment forward so he has a bit of sway,” said Mr Selden, also a previous deputy secretary general for policy at the Nato Parliament assembly.

Views of Turkey in Congress might have become more favourable since Turkey’s donation of drones to Ukraine, Mr Selden said.

“Bringing Sweden and Finland into the alliance is too big a deal to let these concerns derail it, so some solution will be found,” he said.

Renewed pressure

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu last week renewed pressure on Sweden and Finland, stating that they had taken “no concrete steps” so far.

“There is no softening of Turkey’s stance,” Mr Ulgen said.

Both sides are aware that extraditions are decided by the judiciary, not politicians.

“There can’t be credible commitments regarding the outcome of these [extradition] proceedings,” Mr Ulgen added.

But Ankara is still watching closely Sweden’s introduction of anti-terrorist legislation. This is especially the case when it comes to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which is classified by the EU as a terrorist organisation, Mr Ulgen said.

Finland hosted talks with Sweden and Turkey in August, seemingly in an attempt to appease Mr Erdogan. But little is known about these negotiations.

“We have not seen all the parts of the agreement between Sweden, Finland and Turkey. There’s a bit of secrecy surrounding it,” said Anders Sannerstedt, a professor of political science at Lund University.

So far, one Kurdish refugee in Sweden threatened with deportation to Turkey has gone on hunger strike.

In Sweden, Mr Erdogan’s demands are widely viewed as having domestic aims before a general election next year, said Mats Engstrom, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Maybe Erdogan needs to show that he has gained something from Sweden,” he said.

Mr Ulgen agreed that internal Turkish politics played a role.

Mr Erdogan has come under fire from the Turkish opposition for making his annoyance with Sweden public, instead of holding closed-door negotiations, to kindle nationalist support.

“Grievances with Sweden are bi-partisan. What the government is criticised for domestically is the way it articulated them,” Mr Ulgen said.

Meanwhile, Nato members such as the UK have signalled that they would defend Sweden should it come under attack from Russia ― even if its entry to the alliance has not yet been formally ratified.

“We’ve seen a much greater US presence in the Baltic region to show that at least America and other allies are putting their hand out to Sweden and Finland before they formally become members,” Mr Dalsjo said.

Updated: September 19, 2022, 11:19 AM