‘Time is now’ for Sweden to join NATO, Blinken says

The United States has urged Turkey to approve Sweden’s accession into NATO, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying that “the time is now” for the northern European country to join the alliance.

Speaking alongside Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on Tuesday, the top US diplomat said Sweden has been qualified to join NATO “from day one” and has taken significant steps to address Turkey’s “legitimate” security concerns.“From the perspective of the United States, the time is now to finalise Sweden’s accession,” Blinken told reporters in the northern Swedish city of Lulea.

Sweden and neighbouring Finland started seeking NATO membership last year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The US-led alliance has a collective defence pact, meaning an attack on one member is considered an attack on all.

All members of NATO have to agree to allow new countries into the bloc. Finland officially joined the alliance last month, but Sweden’s application is still pending.

Hungary and Turkey have not ratified Sweden’s accession, though Ankara is seen as the main hurdle. Turkey has accused Sweden of providing a safe haven to members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it considers a “terrorist” group.

In June of last year, Turkey, Sweden and Finland signed a so-called trilateral memorandum to address Ankara’s grievances about banned armed groups.

Turkey, however, says Sweden has not fulfilled all of its commitments in the agreement. An Islamophobic Quran-burning protest in Stockholm in January — which the government condemned — further strained ties between the two countries.

“Turkey has raised important and legitimate concerns. Sweden and Finland both addressed those concerns. And so, the time to move forward is now. We’d like to see that happen before the Vilnius summit,” Blinken said on Tuesday, referring to a NATO meeting in the Lithuanian capital in July.

Earlier this week, US President Joe Biden said he discussed Sweden’s NATO bid with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who won re-election on Sunday. They also spoke about Turkey’s push to buy F-16s, a model of US fighter jet.

“I congratulated Erdogan. 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,” Biden told reporters on Monday.On Tuesday, Blinken said the Biden administration does not see the $20bn F-16 deal and Sweden’s NATO bid as connected, but he warned that some US lawmakers do.

“Some members of Congress … are linking Sweden’s accession to NATO to the moving forward on the F-16s. Congress is a fully equal and independent branch of government,” he said. “Their voice and their vote in any such decisions, of course, is critical.”

Congress can veto arms deals approved by the administration, though it has never successfully blocked weapon sales to foreign countries.

Regardless of Sweden’s NATO status, Blinken added on Tuesday, the US will back its security.

“We and our allies are both committed to and well-positioned to help Sweden address its security needs, irrespective of whether accession happens tomorrow or in two weeks or in a few weeks after that,” he said.

For his part, Kristersson, the Swedish prime minister, said his country is moving forward with fulfilling its pledges to its “Turkish friends” in accordance with the trilateral memorandum.

“We have always recognised the fact that every NATO ally has to make its own decision, and only Turkey can make Turkey’s decisions, and we fully respect that,” he said.

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