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Opinion For DPE by Ali Oguz Dirioz– 27 December 2023
Can Sweden ease NATO membership approval by the Turkish Parliament?
As a belated Christmas gift, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Turkish Parliament approved the proposal signed by President Erdoğan, on Sweden’s NATO membership on 26 December 2023 (TRT Haber, 26.12.2023). The parliamentary committee approval will pave the way for full ratification of Swedish membership by the Turkish Parliament. Türkiye is one of the two NATO members that have yet to approve Sweden’s NATO membership (Hungary is the other). However, the full parliamentary approval for the ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership is not a walk in the park. Local elections in Turkiye are less than 100 days away, set for March 31 2024. Sweden’s membership is negotiated between the United States and Türkiye, however there are steps Sweden can still take to ease the parliamentary approval. Positive outreach by Sweden can further encourage Members of Parliament (MPs) who may be worried about voting in favor before the local elections.
Sweden has passed some positive legislation. However, Sweden can still take certain steps towards positive outreach policies which appeal to Turkish public opinion. The Swedish Government in Stockholm seems to assume that US – Turkiye negotiations will be the main factor (which is indeed quite likely). Particularly the United States supplying Turkiye with new generation upgraded F16 fighter jets and some modernization kits in exchange for Swedish membership, is considered to be the key factor. Furthermore, Sweden can also use a rhetoric of vague EU membership status for Turkiye.
Turkiye has a history of being supportive of new nations joining NATO; including the re-admissions of Greece and France to the military wings of NATO. However, assuming that dealings from government to government would be sufficient for ratification is erroneous. In 2003 Turkish parliament rejected a bill that would have allowed American Army to use Turkish territory to occupy Iraq, in spite of Government’s stance. Hence, there is still no guarantee that the majority of MPs would effectively vote in favor to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership. A major concern for Turkish congressmen and congresswomen will be the motivation to retain their parliamentary seats, and not to harm their party in the 31 March 2024 local elections. MPs will be accountable for the votes regarding Sweden’s NATO membership in the next municipal elections as well as in the future parliamentary elections, and even within-party elections. Hence the approval doesn’t look likely to be a walk in the park for Sweden, even if the initial committee approved it. There are, however, measures Sweden can actively pursue to have a more positive image in Turkiye.
These include, first and foremost, taking Turkiye’s concerns regarding defense against terrorism seriously and act in coordination, not just on paper. Terrorism is a crime against humanity, as it opposes ‘the right to live’ of ordinary citizens, indiscriminately. Having freedom doesn’t mean having absolute freedom to harm the lives of others. Murder and promoting murder or hate crimes are persecuted and punished by law in many countries, including in Sweden. Thus, promoting murders of PKK terrorism shouldn’t be considered as a freedom either; NATO and EU recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization. There are still many unanswered questions regarding the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme.
Terrorist attacks perpetrated and assumed by the PKK resulted in the death and injuries of thousands of innocent civilian Turkish citizens. One major problem perhaps is the lack of consensus on an agreed definition of terrorism; which in many academic literature can be defined as “an ideologically motivated political violence attack indiscriminately murdering civilians to terrorize the public.” Turkiye has a history of fighting against multiple terrorist organizations including PKK, FETO, Al Qaeda, ISIS/DAESH, DHKP-C and many more, including drug trafficking criminals and narco-terrorists. It shouldn’t be surprising the NATO Center of Excellence on Defence Against Terrorism (COE-DAT) is located in Ankara. One of the most important medium-term agendas would be to have an agreed definition of terrorism at least among NATO member states, and Sweden can take initiatives in this domain.
Turkiye, for a long time had genuine concerns that Sweden, with a long history of being neutral (including during WWII) didn’t understand the necessary rules for joining a collective security organization and a system of alliance that rests on solidarity against enemies; including against terrorism. It seems now, according to the majority vote at the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Turkish Parliament, Sweden is more serious in applying rules of the laws passed more consistently like Finland did. But there are other economic and ‘Soft Power’ elements that Sweden can more actively engage in order to encourage a positive vote. Sweden can more actively explain why Sweden would be a valuable ally for the alliance and for Turkiye. Furthermore, more incentives and potentials of security and economic cooperation can be better explained. Sweden has many important world famous brands that are in the Turkish market and can be used for public diplomacy and positive image of Sweden. Sweden is a pretty cool country (pun intended) regarding its many celebrities influencing music and sports, and should use its ‘coolness’ to cajole Turkish public opinion. Many world-famous artists, sports figures and brands originated from Sweden, including;
IKEA, Nivea, Volvo (Owned by Chinese Geely Holding), Minecraft (owned by Microsoft), Scania (Saab), Wasa, H&M, Ericsson, Electrolux, Spotify, Telia (Sonera) Company
Abba, Roxette, Ase of Base, Army of Lovers, Dr. Alban, Neneh Cherry, Eagle Eye Cherry, Mabel, DJ Avicii (RIP), Tove Lo, Zara Larsson, Loreen, Swedish House Mafia, Tove Styrke
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Björn Borg, Stefan Edberg, Johan Elmander, Armand Duplantis
Greta Thunberg, and many more famous figures influencing popular culture are also from Sweden. Commercial adds, campaigns, special collections, concerts in Turkiye, advertorial campaigns, documentaries or mini-series TV show of Ottoman-Swedish Alliance against Tsarist Russia would do wonders for more favorable public opinion.
Sweden can actively underline that, beyond political-military cooperation, there are great potentials for economic cooperation as well. In terms of global geopolitics and geo-economics, Turkiye has key location advantage as a center of trade, logistics, supply chain and energy center. In addition to being a NATO member, Turkiye already has a Customs Union agreement with the EU, and is committed to implement the EU Green Deal. Hence Turkiye is still a center of trade, attractive to investors from Sweden. Investor confidence would help Türkiye to achieve its full potential as a trade logistics and energy center at a global sale. Further ensuring stability and cooperation with good relations will contribute to greater investor confidence. Investment on key assets require even more major investments needed for infrastructure, energy as well as transportation and storage.
Sweden has important navy and commercial fleet. These are other assets for potential cooperation with all NATO allies including Turkiye. The geopolitical importance of a possible commercial shipping route that may pass through the North Pole as a result of global warming reveals the geopolitical importance of Northern countries close to the route. Countries on this polar route (except Russia) are NATO member countries. Finland and Sweden, are close to the northern route, and close to the Polar region through their NATO member neighbor Norway. Both Sweden and Finland entered the NATO membership process with the 2022 Madrid tripartite agreement. NATO membership of Finland and Sweden was initially considered as a joint application. However, Turkey delayed the approval of Sweden’s membership due to Sweden’s initial failure to take concrete steps regarding solidarity in the fight against terrorism, and therefore due to its security concerns. Turkiye approved Finland’s membership with the decision of the Turkish Grand National Assembly in March 30, 2023. Finland was more willing to address Turkiye’s sensitivities. Another reason is that Finland is in a more key and important position, as it is strategically closer to the Polar region and therefore to the Arctic route and most importantly, Finland has a long direct border with Russia. Strategically, Sweden does not have a direct land border with Russia, but can provide strategic depth. For Turkiye and other NATO member countries, Finland, Sweden and Norway are increasingly important partners in terms of creating alternative polar routes in future.
Due to ties to the Ural-Altaic language family, it should not be surprising if Finland, like Hungary, will one day be invited to the meetings and summits of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS). Sweden can also take steps to further engage with the OTS, because of economic and commercial cooperation potentials on the New Silk Road as well as cultural cooperation. World trade is increasingly shifting to the Indo-Pacific region, thus benefits of developing and protecting alternative routes (not sticking to a single route) will continue.
Another added value of the corporation would be particularly to have more environmental green energy technologies in the region. Recent wildfires as well as floods and extreme weather events have demonstrated how challenging the environmental crisis will be to the population of all nations regardless of national territories. Cooperation will also be needed to address environmental issues and new security challenges that threaten populations. Military capabilities are often used to combat natural disasters such as extreme weather events causing floods, earthquakes, forest fires as well as post disaster recovery and support. These are all areas of potential cooperation to which Sweden can make considerable contributions.
NATO membership of Sweden would send a strong message to non-NATO powers. Finland’s President Niinistö’s visit to Ankara in March 2023 clearly revealed how much value Finland attached to receiving Turkish favorable vote. Sweden should take Finland as an example to develop relations with Turkiye. Sweden has the potential to become an important political, economic and security partner for all NATO countries, including Turkiye.
In conclusion, Sweden must genuinely try harder to develop positive programs and joint projects appealing to Turkish public opinion to have a positive parliamentary vote.
 TRT Haber, 26.12.2023, İsveç’in NATO üyeliği komisyondan geçti. https://www.trthaber.com/haber/gundem/isvecin-nato-uyeligi-komisyondan-gecti-823985.html
 Council of Europe, 6 December 2023: 2024 LOCAL AND REGIONAL ELECTIONS CALENDAR. https://rm.coe.int/2024-calendar-elections-061223/1680ada573