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Sweden's fraught path to NATO accession

Teri Schultz
June 30, 2023

The latest Quran-burning in Stockholm has not derailed talks with Turkey on Swedish NATO membership. But as Teri Schultz reports, the status quo may doom the alliance's timeline anyway.

 Two men, one holding Swedish flags, the other a megaphone and a book
Turkey has strongly criticized Sweden for allowing the burning of the QuranImage: Stefan Jerrevång/TT NEWS AGENCY/picture alliance

When a protester burned a Quran in Stockholm this week on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, hopes for Turkish approval for Sweden to join NATO by the Vilnius summit in July sank even lower than they already were — practically subterranean.

"We will teach the arrogant Western people that it is not freedom of expression to insult the sacred values of Muslims," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told party members, pledging a strong reaction.

But significantly, Erdogan did not cancel talks with Sweden and Finland scheduled for July 6 at NATO headquarters. After a similar incident in January, he cut off negotiations for months.

So while it is doubtful whether it is still possible to get Turkish — and Hungarian — parliamentary approval by the July 11 start of the NATO summit, Ankara's former ambassador to Sweden, Selim Kuneralp, now retired, believes the Turkish government's "muted" response shows an evolution in  thinking.

Former Turkish ambassador to Sweden Selim Kuneralp
Kuneralp believes Erdogan is rethinking his relationship with Putin after the recent challenge to Putin's leadershipImage: Kuneralp/private

"[Erdogan] has not concluded … that [the Quran-burning] would have a lasting impact on relations with Sweden," Kuneralp told DW. He believes this signals a change in Erdogan's calculations about where his loyalties should lie, which may be enhanced by the troubles fellow strongman Vladimir Putin is facing. "He said that this was a provocative thing and they would not surrender to provocation, so I think that the message that this whole Quran-burning issue is being manipulated by Moscow is finally being understood by the Turkish authorities."

Police protest the protest

Other actions which may have allayed Turkish ire this time include that Swedish authorities sought to have the protest banned, as they had with two earlier requests to burn the Muslim holy book, citing security concerns. But an appeals court ruled two weeks ago that the police had acted incorrectly in those instances, resulting in police permission being granted for Wednesday's demonstration. Immediately afterward, however, police charged the man who carried it out with "agitation against an ethnic or national group."

It remains to be seen whether that charge holds up, explains Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University's Institute for Turkish studies, who said Swedish law has traditionally considered Quran burnings as criticism of religion and not incitement to hatred against a religious group.

Quran-burning discomfort

He told DW the situation remains very tricky for Swedish authorities. "There are many Swedes also who don't quite understand why these things are allowed," he said. "It's an issue that's now being debated in Sweden; it has been debated before. There are also these annual marches by neo-Nazi groups that many people are upset with. But that also is an expression of this rather kind of radical interpretation of freedom-of-speech protections."

Levin noted that while Swedish support for NATO membership remains at a record high, recent polling has shown that "an even stronger majority — around 80% — believe that NATO accession might have to wait if it meant that Swedish principles of rule of law and other similar principles had to be sacrificed."

Supporters of the Kurdish militant group PKK march in Sweden.
Supporters of the Kurdish militant group PKK, dubbed a terrorist organization by the EU, openly march in SwedenImage: Atila Altuntas/AA/picture alliance

Even NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, for whom Sweden's accession is both a personal and professional goal, said such principles need to be upheld. "I do not like [incidents like the Quran-burning], but I defend the right to disagree," he said Thursday when asked whether this would be a setback for Sweden. "My message continues to be that Sweden has delivered on all its obligations, including the obligations that Sweden, Turkey and Finland agreed on at the NATO Summit in Madrid last year."

Not up to Stockholm

But many analysts believe at this point that whether or not Turkey drops its block doesn't actually depend on the Swedes — who by all measures other than Ankara's have fulfilled their obligations in the trilateral mechanism — but rather on the Americans. Questions about the connection of the Swedish bid to the US sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey have long been raised, but Washington has officially kept its distance until very recently.

In late May, when US President Joe Biden called Erdogan to congratulate him on winning reelection, Biden finally signalled a deal could be in the making. "I spoke to Erdogan," Biden said. "He still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden, so let's get that done."

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden recently urged his Turkish counterpart to approve Sweden's NATO bidImage: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

But more than a month later, it still seems to be far from "done." "This clearly is the card [Erdogan] wants to play," said Kuneralp. "Whether the Americans are ready to play the game and whether Congress will in the end accede to his request remains to be seen."

All eyes on America

US Ambassador to NATO Juliane Smith issued her own appeal to Turkey on Thursday, calling it a "very serious moment for the alliance" to show unity.

"We have made clear that our hope is that this will be done before or at the summit," she told DW. "At every turn US interlocutors make this a priority in their conversations with our friends in Ankara." She underscored that "everyone … has committed to getting this done one way or another. We may differ on exactly the timing and whether or not we can get this done by Vilnius. We'll see."

There's another complication that's usually considered subsidiary to the Turkish objection but certainly isn't insignificant: Hungary has not yet ratified Sweden's bid either. The Hungarian government has said it "won't be last" but just this week indicated its parliament won't even consider a vote before the fall.

As Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson arrived for the European Union summit in Brussels on Friday, he said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had promised that "Hungary will not delay Sweden's ratification process in any way." The mystery, then, is whether Budapest has more information about Ankara's plans than anyone else does.

Edited by: Timothy Jones