Sweden’s membership of Nato took a big step forward on Monday after Turkey agreed to remove one of the last major roadblocks in return for help in reviving Turkey’s own chances of joining the European Union.
At talks in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, where US President Joe Biden and his Nato counterparts are meeting for a two-day summit starting on Tuesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan committed to put the Nordic country’s accession protocol before Parliament “as soon as possible”, the head of Nato said.
After a series of high-stakes meetings, Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said: “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.”
Sweden’s Nato accession has been held up by objections from Turkey since last year.
The Turkish parliament’s ratification of the accession protocol is one of the last steps in the process.
Stoltenberg made the announcement after talks with Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on the eve of a Nato summit in Lithuania.
“Today we took a very big step on the road toward complete ratification,” Kristersson said.
There was no comment from Erdogan.
It’s unclear when the Nordic country’s membership might be approved, but the agreement appears to have taken the issue off the agenda of the summit, which was meant to focus uniquely on the war in Ukraine and Kyiv’s own membership aspirations.
In a statement, Biden welcomed the agreement and said he will work with Turkey “on enhancing defence and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area”.
He added: “I look forward to welcoming Prime Minister Kristersson and Sweden as our 32nd Nato Ally.”
In exchange for Turkey’s help, Sweden has agreed to help unblock its progress towards joining the European Union, which has been on hold since 2018.
Stoltenberg said that Turkey’s relationship with the EU was “not an issue for Nato, it’s an issue for the European Union”
However, he told reporters that “what Sweden agreed today as an EU member was to support actively the efforts to reinvigorate Turkey’s EU accession process”.
Earlier on Monday, Erdogan had warned that he would block Sweden’s attempt to become the 32nd Nato ally unless European members of the military organisation “pave the way” for Turkey to join the world’s biggest trading bloc.
It was the first time that he had linked the two countries’ aspirations in this way.
Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul: “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”.
“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.”
Turkey was blocking Sweden’s accession 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 Vilnius, Erdogan first met with Kristersson, before breaking off for separate talks 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”.
The council president said he has tasked the European Commission to draw up a “report with a view to proceed in strategic and forward-looking manner”.
Turkey first applied to join what is now the EU in 1987, 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.
Of the 31 Nato member countries, 22 are also members of the EU, like Sweden.
Stoltenberg and Kristersson said that Sweden would also help Turkey to improve its customs arrangements with the EU, and to try to obtain visa-free travel in Europe for its citizens.
Turkey has tried to achieve these goals over recent years but has failed to meet the trading bloc’s standards.
Earlier, Erdogan’s office said he told US President Joe Biden during a telephone call on 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.
Erdogan and Kristersson met later on Monday after they arrived in Vilnius, where Nato leaders will meet over the next two days to discuss a host of issues including Nato’s future relations with Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will join them in person on Wednesday.
Erdogan was also due to meet EU Council president Charles Michel.
EU Commission spokesperson Dana Spinant said that “you cannot link the two processes in regards to Turkey”.
Turkey is a candidate to join the EU, but democratic backsliding during Mr Erdogan’s presidency, disputes with EU-member Cyprus and other issues have held up the country’s progress towards admission in the 27-nation bloc.
However, as a member of Nato, Erdogan’s government has postponed ratifying Sweden’s accession to the alliance, 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 summit.
Turkey’s delays on Sweden’s accession have irritated other allies including the United States.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, confirmed on 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.”
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 at the summit 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 Zelensky 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.