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Wider Europe Briefing: Sweden's NATO Membership Is Still On A Knife-Edge

Demonstrators protest in Stockholm against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Sweden’s NATO bid. Rallies like this have enraged Ankara and complicated the Nordic country's NATO-accession process. (file photo)
Demonstrators protest in Stockholm against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Sweden’s NATO bid. Rallies like this have enraged Ankara and complicated the Nordic country's NATO-accession process. (file photo)

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two major issues: Sweden's NATO membership endgame and the midterm scorecard from Brussels for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Brief #1: Is Sweden Finally Becoming A NATO Member?

What You Need To Know: The saga of Sweden's NATO accession is now likely entering its endgame. Having applied to join the military alliance together with Finland in the wake of Russian's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many initially expected a quick accession. But it has turned out to be more complicated than first anticipated. Turkey signaled that it needed to see progress from Helsinki -- but notably Sweden -- in areas such as fighting terrorism, the lifting of an arms embargo on Ankara, and fulfilling Turkish extradition requests.

While the trio signed a memorandum of understanding on the sidelines of the NATO Madrid summit in June 2022, outlining what needed to be done by the Nordic duo in order to get Turkish ratification, the fact remains that, as NATO approaches the Vilnius summit in July, those issues still remain a year down the line.

The prospects looked grim earlier this year when two different protests held in Sweden truly enraged Ankara. In one, Kurds hung upside down an effigy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan near Stockholm's city hall, while, in the other, a Swedish-Danish far-right politician and provocateur set fire to a copy of the Koran outside the Turkish Embassy in the Swedish capital.

Given Sweden's slow progress, Finland decided to decouple and enter alone, becoming NATO member number 31 in early April. Most NATO officials I have spoken to on background say that there were never really any issues with Finland, only Sweden.

There also doesn't appear to be much of an issue with Hungary, either. Budapest's refusal so far to ratify Sweden's membership is just solidarity with Turkey, according to the NATO officials I've spoken to.

Budapest hasn't actually made any concrete demands on Sweden other than a few complaints about Swedish politicians criticizing the country's rule of law, and Hungary has indicated that it won't be the last country to ratify Swedish membership.

So, in the end, it will be about Stockholm and Ankara ironing out their differences, whether ahead of the Vilnius summit on July 11-12, during, or shortly afterwards.

Deep Background: The smart money is that there will be a deal in Vilnius that will allow the Turkish parliament to ratify later in July before it goes into recess until October. "Erdogan likes to be in the limelight and, just like in Madrid in 2022, he will find a way to steal the show at the summit," a NATO diplomat who isn't authorized to speak on the record recently told me with a smile.

Swedish and Turkish officials met in Ankara earlier in June, and it is possible that they will meet again in the days and weeks ahead of the summit.

However, NATO officials have told me that there is little left to solve at this level and it is time for the countries' political leaders to reach an agreement.

There have been extraditions to Turkey, mostly Kurds on terrorism charges, although not as many as Turkey would like. "This is for the courts to decide, not the government" is a common refrain I hear from Swedish officials and diplomats.

A Swedish arms embargo on Turkey has been lifted and, as of June 1, there has been new Swedish counterterrorism legislation that could potentially make it easier to hand over people from Sweden.

While that won't stop anti-Erdogan protests in Swedish cities, it could help prevent displaying at such events flags of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey designates a terrorist group. Plus, events in which burning the Koran will occur are unlikely to get permission to go ahead in the future.

The big question is whether that will be enough for Erdogan, who told NATO's secretary-general in a phone call on June 25 that Sweden must stop protests by supporters of the PKK to get a green light on its NATO membership bid and that Sweden's change of its terrorism law was "meaningless" while such protests continued.

But if Ankara insists on seeing concrete results from the new counterterrorism law, this could potentially drag on for years. So, if the Swedish prime minister and the Turkish president can't find a compromise in Vilnius, then it might be that they'll need assistance, or intervention, from the NATO secretary-general or even the U.S. president.

Drilling Down

  • The way things could be solved is a giant political package at -- or on the sidelines of -- the Vilnius summit. There might be a commitment by Washington to send F-16 fighter jets to Ankara -- something that Turkey has been eyeing for a long time. The U.S. Congress, however, has been reluctant to green-light the sale of the jets until Sweden becomes a member of the alliance. So, there might be room for maneuver there. That is not the only sweetener the United States could offer. It's possible there could be a further loosening of other U.S. arms export restrictions to Turkey. Plus, a possible visit by Erdogan to the U.S. capital in the fall.
  • In the meantime, Jens Stoltenberg might be asked to stay on for an extra year as NATO secretary-general, due to a reported lack of consensus on his replacement. That would be something that Turkey would look favorably upon as Stoltenberg enjoys good relations with the Turkish leadership and, apparently, Ankara isn't too keen on any other Nordic candidate for the position. (There has been speculation that Danish Prime Minister Mette Fredriksen has been eyeing the secretary-general post.)
  • Stoltenberg, who has headed the military alliance since 2014, has been adamant that he would prefer to step down after the Vilnius summit. But it could very well be that he is asked to stay on until the next summit in Washington, D.C., in July 2024, when NATO celebrates its 75th anniversary.
  • Another crucial piece of a possible deal could involve an agreement on updated NATO defense plans. NATO countries have failed to reach consensus on the new plans, with several sources familiar with the issue saying that Turkey is the main obstruction to an agreement on the secret military blueprints of how NATO would respond to a potential Russian attack. According to my sources, Turkey's main objection to the updated defense plans is that it wants the Bosphorus to be called "the Turkish straits" -- something that Greece has balked at.

Brief #2: Midterm Grades For Ukraine, Georgia, And Moldova

What You Need To Know: Last week, the European Commission presented its midterm report on how EU hopefuls Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are progressing in the various policy fields that Brussels requires improvement on in order for them to join the bloc.

Briefing first the ambassadors of the 27 EU member states in Brussels on June 21, then Europe ministers at an informal meeting in Stockholm on June 22, plus officials in Kyiv, Chisinau, and Tbilisi, the report was a snapshot ahead of the crucial EU enlargement reports coming this October.

It is these reports where the European Commission will give its final assessment on the three countries and spell out what are the next steps. EU member states will then either confirm or reject that recommendation two months later.

For candidate countries Moldova and Ukraine, the next stage would be the opening of accession negotiations. For Georgia, it would mean being where Moldova and Ukraine are right now: official candidates for membership.

Judging from the report presented last week, there is plenty of homework for the trio to do in the coming months, especially for Georgia which is clearly lagging way behind.

The European Commission has given a five-scale grading of how the three countries have done so far with the priorities it set out: "No progress"; "limited progress," meaning that reform in that area has just started; "some progress," meaning that less than 50 percent of the reforms have been implemented; "good progress," meaning that more than 50 percent of reforms have been implemented and "completed."

A lot of work still needs to be done. Of the seven priorities given to Ukraine, two are considered "completed"; Moldova has "completed" three out of its nine reform priorities; while laggard Georgia, which was given a dozen priorities, has only "completed" three.

Deep Background: Ukraine is in the very difficult position of having to grapple with these reforms while defending itself against Russia's full-scale invasion.

Ukraine has received "completed" grades with regard to passing relevant media laws and reforming the judiciary and an assessment of "good progress" on reforming the Constitutional Court. In the four remaining policy fields -- anti-corruption, anti-money-laundering, clamping down on oligarchs, and national minority rights -- Brussels said that "some progress" has been made.

This is where Ukraine will need to make considerable improvements. Among the many things the country needs to do to meet the EU requirements, Kyiv will have to tackle more high-level corruption cases, restore e-asset declarations (an electronic tool that enables Ukrainian public officials to disclose earnings and assets), and speed up the alignment of anti-money laundering legislation with international standards.

But perhaps the trickiest issue will be the ethnic Hungarian minority in Ukraine, their rights, and how Budapest will respond.

For several years, the Hungarian government has rallied behind the around 100,000 ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, offering them citizenship and criticizing a 2017 Ukrainian law that ensures the universal teaching of Ukrainian in schools at the expense of minority languages, including Hungarian and Russian.

Many EU insiders believe that Ukraine will get the green light to start accession talks later this year, but Hungary might still veto this. In the discussion in Brussels following the presentation of the report, Hungary was very critical of Kyiv for not doing enough on minority rights.

Drilling Down​

  • One scenario I recently heard from an EU official familiar with the topic is that Hungary will only sign off on Ukraine opening accession negotiations if other EU countries agree to approve Georgia's candidate status at the same time. In recent years, the Georgian government has cultivated a much closer relationship with Budapest.
  • Reaching consensus on Georgia's candidate status will be tricky, to say the least, especially given how much work the country needs to do. With just "limited progress" on the need to achieve "de-oligarchization," Brussels has said that Tbilisi needs to adopt a "more systemic approach" to the issue. Regarding media pluralism, the situation looks even worse. According to the report, no progress has been made in that field and the European Commission is urging Georgia to ensure the safety of journalists and to better protect both media and media owners. The presidential pardon on June 22 of the prominent opposition journalist Nika Gvaramia, who was locked up on a charge of abuse of power that was widely described as politically motivated, is just the sort of progress the European Commission is looking for.
  • In other policy fields, Georgia was deemed to have made "some progress." When it comes to addressing political polarization, the EU urged the country to end "harsh rhetoric," institute a more efficient oversight of parliament, and try more "constructive cross-party arrangements." The government also needs to address LGBT rights, resume regular and transparent consultations with civil-society groups, and appoint the remaining nonjudge members of the High Council of Justice.
  • All things considered, Moldova might actually have the best report card of all three. Good progress has been made on reforms of the management of public finances and the judiciary. Chisinau is also considered to have completed what was needed when it comes to the involvement of civil-society actors in parliamentary decision-making processes and the protection of human rights, notably on gender equality.
  • But Moldova still has much work to do, for example: elevating the work of the anti-corruption prosecutor; improving the quality of investigations into graft cases; stepping up work on asset recovery; and enacting more laws on combating money laundering and fighting organized crime.

Looking Ahead

On June 29-30, EU leaders gather in Brussels for their regular summit before the summer break. Discussions on Ukraine will dominate, particularly on how to provide more military aid, and how to potentially use frozen Russian assets in the bloc for Ukrainian reconstruction in the future. They are also likely to discuss the establishment of a tribunal that could prosecute war crimes against Kyiv, plus even some groundwork on a new round of sanctions against the Kremlin.

Before EU leaders gather in the Belgian capital, the bloc's foreign ministers will meet in Luxembourg on June 26. It's expected that EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell will update the ministers about his recent crisis talks with Serbian President Alexander Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti. The ministers will also discuss the EU's mediation efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. European Council President Charles Michel will host talks in Brussels with the leaders from both countries in July.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

About The Newsletter

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Tuesday morning on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

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