The biggest remaining barrier to expanding the Western defense alliance as the war in Ukraine rages on has been removed, according to President Tayyip Erdogan, who stated on Friday that Turkey’s parliament will start ratifying Finland’s NATO application but not Sweden’s.
Together with his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto, Erdogan claimed Helsinki gained Turkey’s support after making good on its commitments to combat what Ankara views as terrorists and to open up the defense export market.
Ankara will continue discussions with Stockholm on terrorism-related issues and its NATO membership bid would depend directly on measures taken, he added.
The parliaments of all 30 NATO members must ratify newcomers. Finland would represent the first enlargement since North Macedonia joined the trans-Atlantic pact in 2020.
“We have decided to initiate the ratification of Finland’s accession process to NATO in our parliament,” Erdogan told reporters after meeting with Niinisto, adding he hoped parliament would endorse the bid before May 14 elections.
Niinisto said he welcomed the decision and called it “very important” for Finland, which shares a long and remote border with Russia. He added it was important that neighbour Sweden also joined the alliance.
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland applied last year to join NATO but faced unexpected objections from Turkey, which joined in 1952.
Ankara says Stockholm harbours members of what Turkey calls terrorist groups, particularly the Kurdish militant group PKK, a charge Sweden denies.
Apart from Hungary, whose ruling party has said it backs the two Nordic bids but has delayed steps, Turkey is the only NATO member not yet to have given Finland and Sweden its green light.
Sweden, Finland and Turkey agreed a deal last year aimed at addressing Turkish concerns.
Ankara suspended talks in January after a far-right politician burned a copy of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, in Stockholm, but lower level talks resumed in Brussels last week.
Amid simmering tensions with Sweden, Erdogan signalled in January that Turkey could endorse Helsinki ahead of Stockholm. Washington and other NATO members had hoped the two Nordic countries would join the alliance at a NATO summit set for July 11 in Vilnius.
Erdogan’s blessing comes nearly a year after he shocked members with a threat to veto the bids, and two months before elections that are seen as the most consequential vote in Turkey’s history.
Turkey’s parliament is expected to ratify Finland before it closes in mid-April ahead of the parliamentary and presidential votes scheduled for May 14.
The expected approval of one of the two Nordic bidders could be welcomed by Western diplomats and investors.
“Investors would like to see a Turkish pivot back towards closer relations with its traditional Western allies,” said Blaise Antin, head of EM sovereign research at asset manager TCW in Los Angeles.
“Headlines about vetoing NATO enlargement or helping Russia evade sanctions are unnerving to Turkey’s traditional economic and investment partners in the United States and Europe, he said.