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Finland's FM hints at joining NATO without Sweden

January 24, 2023

Kurdish and anti-Islam protests in Sweden have angered Turkey, threatening the Nordic countries' joint NATO application. Turkey has thus far blocked the pair's NATO bid.

Flags of NATO, Sweden and Finland displayed on phone screens are seen in this multiple exposure illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on May 15, 2022.
Anti-Islam and Kurdish protests in Sweden have threatened Finland and Sweden's joint NATO membershipImage: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Finland has hinted for the first time that it may have to consider joining the NATO military alliance without its Nordic neighbor.

In statements to a Finnish radio broadcaster on Tuesday, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said: "We still have to evaluate the situation if it turns out that Sweden's application is stalling for a long time to come.''

Haavisto said that proceeding with the joint application remained the first option. He nevertheless added that other routes would be considered if Sweden's NATO application became stuck in the long run.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom reacted to his Finnish counterpart's latest statements, saying Sweden was in contact with its Nordic neighbor "to find out what is really meant."

Also on Tuesday, Turkey announced the unilateral postponement of NATO accession talks with Sweden and Finland scheduled for February. 

In response, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson urged collective calm and a return to dialogue, saying, "No national security question is more important than that we, with Finland, quickly become members of NATO." 

What has changed Finland's stance?

Haavisto's statement came only a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Sweden of counting on his country's support for its NATO bid.

Erdogan was reacting to an anti-Islam protest in Stockholm on Saturday, during which the Quran was burned outside the Turkish embassy. A separate Kurdish protest was also held in the Swedish capital on the weekend.

"It is clear that those who allowed such vileness to take place in front of our embassy can no longer expect any charity from us regarding their NATO membership application,'' Erdogan said.

The Swedish government tried to distance itself from the demonstrations, openly condemning the Quran burning incident for any offence it may have caused Muslims. However, the government maintained its wide freedom of speech principles.

Speaking on Tuesday, Finland's Haavisto said that the protest toyed with both Finland's and Sweden's security, by stalling the NATO bid.

Joint NATO bid

Both Finland and Sweden have for decades maintained a neutral military stance within Europe and beyond. However, Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year prompted the Nordic neighbors to change course, seeking for the first time a NATO membership.

In order to join the alliance, the duo must secure the unanimous approval of all members. Turkey has been vocal about its reservations, citing the countries' support to and hosting of what it describes as "terrorists," in reference mostly to exiled Kurds.

Last summer, ahead of a historic NATO summit, Finland, Sweden and Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding, paving the way for Turkey's approval of the former countries' NATO bid.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (L), NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (M) and Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs Anne Linde (R) give a press conference after the signing of the accession protocols of Finland and Sweden at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on July 5, 2022.
Finland and Sweden formally applied to join NATO during the alliance's annual summer last summerImage: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

As per the agreement, Finland and Sweden committed to refrain from supporting Kurdish militant groups and lift an arms embargo imposed on Turkey after its 2019 incursion in northern Syria.

Erdogan has also insisted that the countries hand over a list of suspects Turkey accuses of complicity in a 2016 coup attempt, many of them Kurdish. 

Unlike Sweden, Finland shares a border with Russia and was once occupied by the Russian empire from 1809 to 1917, when the Bolshevik government recognized Finland's independence.

rmt/kb (AP, dpa, Reuters)