‘Time-out’ needed in talks with Turkey over NATO membership

Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto arrives for the meeting of the NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Bucharest, Romania, on November 30, 2022.

Daniel Mihailescu | Afp | Getty Images

Finland is calling for a “time-out” in talks with Turkey over Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO, after a series of events between Turkey and Sweden spiked fresh tensions and acrimony.

“A time-out is needed before we return to the three-way talks and see where we are when the dust has settled after the current situation, so no conclusions should be drawn yet … I think there will be a break for a couple of weeks,” Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told Reuters in an interview published Tuesday.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that Sweden shouldn’t expect his country’s support in joining NATO after it allowed a far-right wing demonstration and Quran burning to take place in Stockholm, in front of the Turkish embassy.

“Those who allow such blasphemy in front of our embassy can no longer expect our support for their NATO membership,” Erdogan said.

The burning of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, was led by Rasmus Paludan, who leads the Danish far-right political party Hard Line. Swedish authorities say the protest was legal under the country’s free speech laws, but Sweden’s leaders condemned the act, calling it “appalling.”

The Islamophobic demonstration set off angry responses and condemnation from a number of Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait, and prompted a protest by Muslims in front of the Swedish consulate in Istanbul.

A sign in a window of the Swedish consulate in Istanbul read in all caps: “We do not share that book-burning idiot’s view!!” 

Roadblock to NATO

Finland and Sweden have since May 2022 made clear their intention to join the NATO alliance simultaneously, decidedly dropping their long-held policy of non-alignment following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Accepting a new member into the 73-year old alliance requires unanimous consent of all 30 current members; Turkey is the one member most vocally opposing the new accession.

Sweden and Finland have taken another step in joining NATO, meaning only a formal ratification of their accession agreement is now left.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The reasons behind Ankara’s opposition are complex, but center mainly on Sweden’s support for Kurdish groups that Turkey considers to be terrorists, and on weapons embargoes that both Sweden and Finland, along with other EU countries, put on Turkey for its targeting of Kurdish militias in Syria.

Finland and Sweden signed a trilateral agreement with Turkey to work to overcome Turkey’s points of opposition to the Nordic states’ NATO memberships. But the latest scheduled meetings were canceled after the Quran burning incident, as well as a protest by Kurdish activists in Sweden several days earlier that featured an effigy of Erdogan hanging upside down by a rope.

Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin recently said that Sweden has eight to 10 weeks to make the changes demanded by Ankara as Turkey’s parliament could go into recess before the country’s crucial presidential election on May 14. Sweden says it needs six more months to make those changes.

Analysts interviewed by CNBC do not expect any major change in Turkey’s position before the election.

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