VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to send Sweden’s accession protocol for joining NATO to the Turkish Parliament “as soon as possible” and to help ensure that the assembly approves it.
Stoltenberg made the announcement after talks with Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on the eve of a NATO summit in Lithuania. Sweden’s NATO accession has been held up by objections from Turkey since last year.
“This is an historic day because we have a clear commitment by Turkey to submit the ratification documents to the Grand National Assembly, and to work also with the assembly to ensure ratification,” Stoltenberg told reporters.
Earlier Monday, with NATO hoping to put on a public display of unity in its support for Ukraine more than 500 days into the war, Erdogan said that he would block Sweden’s path unless European members of the military organization “pave the way” for Turkey to join the world’s biggest trading bloc.
His surprise announcement added new uncertainty to Sweden’s bid to become the alliance’s 32nd member. Turkey was already blocking its entry because Erdogan believes that Sweden has been too soft on Kurdish militants and other groups that he considers to be security threats.
On arriving in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, where U.S. President Joe Biden and his counterparts will hold two days of talks starting on Tuesday, Erdogan first met with Kristersson, before breaking off for a separate meeting with European Council President Charles Michel.
Michel tweeted that he and Erdogan had “explored opportunities ahead to bring cooperation back to the forefront and re-energise our relations.” Michel said he has tasked the European Commission to draw up a “report with a view to proceed in strategic and forward-looking manner.”
Turkey is a candidate to join the EU, but its membership talks have been at a standstill since 2018 due to democratic backsliding during Erdogan’s presidency, concerns about the rule of law and rights abuses, as well as disputes with EU-member Cyprus.
Erdogan’s new demand was the first time that he had linked his country’s ambition to join the EU with Sweden’s efforts to become a NATO member.
“Turkey has been waiting at the door of the European Union for over 50 years now, and almost all of the NATO member countries are now members of the European Union,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul. “I am making this call to these countries that have kept Turkey waiting at the gates of the European Union for more than 50 years.”
“Come and open the way for Turkey’s membership in the European Union. When you pave the way for Turkey, we’ll pave the way for Sweden as we did for Finland,” he added.
Earlier, Erdogan’s office said he told U.S. President Joe Biden during a telephone call Sunday that Turkey wanted a “clear and strong” message of support for Turkey’s EU ambitions from the NATO leaders. The White House readout of the Biden-Erdogan call did not mention the issue of Turkish EU membership.
“Turkey has been waiting at the door of the European Union for over 50 years now, and almost all of the NATO member countries are now members of the European Union,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul, before flying to Vilnius.
“I am making this call to these countries that have kept Turkey waiting at the gates of the European Union for more than 50 years,” he said. “Come and open the way for Turkey’s membership in the European Union. When you pave the way for Turkey, we’ll pave the way for Sweden, as we did for Finland.”
Erdogan’s government has postponed ratifying Sweden’s accession, saying the administration in Stockholm needs to do more to crack down on Kurdish militants and other groups. A series of anti-Turkey and anti-Islam protests in Sweden’s capital raised doubts that an agreement to satisfy Turkey’s demands could be reached before the NATO summit.
Turkey’s delaying tactics have irritated other NATO allies including the United States. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, confirmed Sunday that Biden and Erdogan had spoken about Sweden’s NATO membership among other issues and had agreed to meet in Vilnius for further talks.
Sullivan said the White House is confident Sweden will join the alliance.
“We don’t regard this as something that is fundamentally in doubt. This is a matter of timing. The sooner the better,” he said.
Previously non-aligned Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership last year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Finland joined in April following Turkish ratification.
Another key issue in Vilnius will be how to bring Ukraine closer to NATO without actually joining, and security guarantees Kyiv might need to ensure that Russia doesn’t invade again after the war ends. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky will join the summit in person on Wednesday.
Stoltenberg said the most important thing was to continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to resist the Russian invasion.
“Unless Ukraine prevails there is no membership issue to discuss at all,” he said.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. AP White House reporter Chris Megerian in London contributed to this report.