In an unexpected and bazar twist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a statement at a press conference on Monday in Istanbul that if its allies wanted Turkiye to approve Sweden joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) then they should persuade the European Union (EU) to allow Turkiye to become a member.1 This may sound like diplomatic blackmail, given that in order for Sweden to join Nato it needs the full approval of all current members including Turkiye which has yet to agree to the consensus.2 Erdogan’s statement which took world leaders and diplomats by surprise came on the eve of a NATO summit in Lithuania, where Sweden’s membership is on the agenda.3 In Erdogan’s words “First let’s clear Turkey’s way in the European Union, then let’s clear the way for Sweden , just as we paved the way for Finland,”.4 Erdogan has long been a controversial leader and in his statement he said “Turkey has been waiting at the gate of the European Union for over 50 years now and almost all NATO member countries are European member countries.”5 If this is the case then the European Union would be reluctant to accept Erdogan’s Turkiye as a member state due to its authoritarian nature.6
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If Turkey can’t join the EU, he seems to be saying, then nor can Sweden join the Nato military alliance. As far as EU officials are concerned, this is a non-starter. “You cannot link the two processes,” was the response of European Commission spokesperson Dana Spinant.
Turkey first applied to join the EU way back in 1987, but its drift towards authoritarianism under President Erdogan brought the accession process to a halt. In November 2016, as President Erdogan cracked down on opponents he accused of involvement in that year’s attempted coup, the European Parliament voted to suspend talks. Relations had already soured over the 2015 migration crisis, with EU members accusing Mr Erdogan of diplomatic blackmail. But as an established member of Nato (since 1952), Turkey has power: all Nato members have to agree before any new members are admitted.
President Biden spoke to Mr Erdogan on Sunday, in a last-minute bid to persuade him to drop his opposition to Sweden’s membership. On the eve of the summit in Vilnius, Nato’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is convening a meeting between the Turkish president and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. Most diplomats believe the Turkish leader is using his leverage to extract concessions from the alliance, possibly including the sale of F-16 jets by the US. (What is Turkey’s leader Erdogan up to now)
Ankara seems to be hell bent on joining the EU. But at what price? We have had the ongoing saga where Britain has voted in a divisive 2016 referendum to leave the body over, it interfering in its sovereignty and having to follow the dictates of unelected officials from Brussels. Turkiye will have to secede some of its own sovereignty in terms of recognizing the courts and laws of the EU. Why does Erdogan the Muslim leader of an Asian country with only a toehold in Europe want to join? It could only be because of employment and trade opportunities. Turkiye is an import driven economy and if his government doesn’t deliver it could fall. Erdogan is a persuasive figure and he is using the Swedish bid for Nato membership to extract concessions from the United States and European nations to strengthen the Turkish economy.
This could also extend to expanding Ankara’s strategic influence and interests in the Middle East as well as the Black Sea. Stockholm under Prime Minister Kristersson has a long road ahead to find out what Erdogan’s terms are. At the moment those F-16 Jets are key to persuading Erdogan to soften his stance. But it will not be enough.
Erdogan may need the jets to strengthen Turkiye’s army to fight militants from among the Kurds or even the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Turkiye is strategically placed between Syria, Iraq and Iran to the south and Greece, Russia and the Central Asian states to the North. The Western powers do not want to isolate their major ally so they will search for a way to satisfy both Erdogan and the Swedish government. It is all a matter of time.