Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO bids seemed like a mere formality. Nothing, it seemed, could stop the two Nordic neighbors from joining the alliance–indeed, they were even promised a fast lane to membership. But then Turkey proceeded to block the countries’ applications over concerns for their support of Kurds—a dig primarily directed at Sweden. And Sweden’s opposition parties organized a no-confidence vote against a bungling justice minister. In a remarkable turn of events, this caused Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson to make concessions to a Kurdish member of parliament. Sweden’s NATO application seems close to derailing, at least for the time being.
Before submitting their NATO applications, Sweden and Finland had surveyed alliance members; no one spoke up to object. Then they submitted their applications, and Turkey blocked them. “Unless Sweden and Finland clearly show that they will stand in solidarity with Turkey on fundamental issues, especially in the fight against terrorism, we will not approach these countries’ NATO membership positively,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg last month. The Turkish president’s beef mostly seems to concern Sweden, which has long hosted Kurdish refugees (some of them of the militant variety). One former Peshmerga fighter, Amineh Kakabaveh, is even a member of Sweden’s parliament. Erdogan wants Sweden to curtail its links to Kurdish groups and end its suspension of arms exports to Turkey.
Enter Morgan Johansson. The veteran Social Democrat politician is minister of justice and the interior in Andersson’s minority government, and he has a dismal record. During his tenure, a wave of gun violence, mostly perpetrated by criminal gangs, has rapidly spread through the country. Already last year, Sweden was among the EU’s deadliest countries when it comes to gun violence, with four shooting deaths per million inhabitants compared to the EU average of 1.5, and since then the situation has further deteriorated. And on June 2, the parliamentary committee charged with scrutinizing government operations unanimously criticized Johansson for obfuscating. The opposition requested a parliamentary no-confidence vote in Johansson.
But instead of treating the parliamentary slap on the fingers as a welcome opportunity to sack a bungling minister, Andersson clung to Johansson—and as with all parliamentary decisions, her government needed every single one of the votes it had managed to sew together when it took office. The most decisive of those votes, the one that gives the government a one-vote majority of support in parliament, belongs to Kakabaveh—and she’d already accused Andersson of giving in to Turkey’s demands regarding NATO accession. She needed to be placated, which she apparently was. She voted with the government—and afterwards told Swedish media that the government had made promises to her regarding the Kurds. These promises, Swedish media report, clash with Erdogan’s demands. And just in case Andersson thought she could trick Kakabaveh, the latter declared after the vote that she’ll vote against the government’s budget in later this month if her demands are not met.
Andersson saved Johansson—even though it meant jeopardizing Sweden’s NATO bid. Erdogan is a difficult man, and Turkey has always been a tricky member of NATO, but as a member it has the right to reject applicants it doesn’t like. Had Andersson signaled willingness to compromise, it’s likely that Erdogan would have softened his opposition to Sweden. Now, with Andersson and her government at the mercy of Kakabaveh, he’s extremely unlikely to do so. Sweden’s NATO bid is close to derailing.
That puts Finland in in a difficult spot. The two countries have long remained outside NATO together and it was always clear that if they were going to join, they’d join together. In May, after a closely coordinated discernment process, they submitted their applications together. And now? It would hardly be surprising if Finland gets annoyed with the wait. But it doesn’t matter whether Finland is annoyed, because the only country that can cut the wait is Turkey—and Turkey might decide to let Finland in and keep Sweden out. There go the two perfect applicants’ perfectly managed NATO applications submitted at the perfect moment.
Sweden, of course, remains an extremely attractive NATO applicant, and there’s no doubt that it will be a considerable asset to NATO when it joins. That, though, won’t be this summer, and it may not be at the same time as Finland. The culprit is clearly Turkey, but Andersson—a rookie prime minister without foreign or security policy experience—clearly mismanaged the no-confidence vote against Johansson. As a result, Swedish national security will suffer at an extremely sensitive moment. It doesn’t matter that the Pentagon sent the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge as well as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, to Stockholm earlier this month. It also doesn’t matter that the U.S. and the UK (and other NATO member states including Germany) have in the past few weeks given Sweden and Finland security guarantees. NATO membership is different—and now it sadly looks more distant. At least for Sweden.