NATO chief hints Finland, Sweden could join alliance separately

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Jens Stoltenberg says Nordic nations becoming members hand in hand is not the ‘main question’ as Turkey continues to block Sweden.

NATO’s secretary-general has said it is more important that Finland and Sweden join the military alliance quickly rather than at the same time amid tensions between the pair and Turkey, which has refused to ratify the Nordic nations’ membership bids.

Speaking before a meeting of NATO defence ministers at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, Jens Stoltenberg said the “main question is not whether Finland and Sweden are ratified together”.

“The main question is that they are both ratified as full members as soon as possible,” he told reporters.

Stoltenberg’s comments marked the first open acknowledgment by NATO that the two countries may join the alliance separately after they abandoned decades of non-alignment and applied to join NATO in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.

INTERACTIVE - NATO TIMELINE OF MEMBERS

Their respective membership bids have been ratified by all 30 of the transatlantic alliance’s member states, except Hungary and Turkey, which is widely seen as the main hold-up to their joining.

Unanimous approval is required for any country to become a new member.

Turkish opposition to Sweden’s bid

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has indicated his country could ratify Finland’s application even while continuing to block Sweden’s.

“Our position on Finland is positive, but it is not positive on Sweden,” he told Turkish parliamentarians at the beginning of February.

Ankara has accused the government in Stockholm of being too lenient toward groups it deems to be “terrorist” organisations or existential threats, including Kurdish groups.

Earlier this month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara has fewer problems with Finland joining NATO.

Turkey is in an election year, and the topic of Nordic membership of NATO could be a vote winner. In recent weeks, Erdogan has expressed anger at a series of separate demonstrations in Sweden’s capital.

In one such case in Stockholm, an anti-Islam activist burned a copy of the Quran outside the Turkish Embassy, while in an unconnected case, protesters hung an effigy of Erdogan.

‘Our strong wish is still to join together’

Western officials have said they would prefer both countries to join the NATO alliance together, partly because it would be easier to integrate them at the same time into its military structures.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has also said there are “obvious” reasons for his country and Finland to be approved as members hand in hand, such as the already close defence cooperation between the pair.

Finland’s foreign minister said late last month that it was maintaining its plan to join NATO at the same time as Sweden despite Turkey’s opposition to the latter’s bid.

“Our strong wish is still to join NATO together with Sweden,” Pekka Haavisto said.

However, Finnish parliamentary groups said last week that they may ratify NATO’s founding treaties in the coming weeks, a step that could lead to Helsinki proceeding with membership ahead of Sweden.

Of the two countries, only Finland shares a border with Russia. That said, some NATO allies, led by the United States, have offered security guarantees to both should they come under threat from any aggression by Moscow.

Hungary has pushed back its ratification date for both countries three times so far, but has not publicly raised any substantial objections to either of them joining.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

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