Explainer: NATO Membership For Sweden and Finland

Türkiye and Hungary are playing different hands, but will either be successful?

1 March 2023

Johanna Patricius

The clock is ticking, and the whole of NATO waits. Will Türkiye and Hungary ever accept Finland and Sweden into the alliance?

Both the prime minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, and the prime minister of Sweden, Ulf Kristersson, have said several times that the countries will join NATO together. Today, Hungary is opening parliamentary debates on both countries’ memberships, while Türkiye has indicated that they will only ratify the Finnish application and not the Swedish one. How did this political and security issue arise?

Swedes and Finns are the largest minority groups in each other’s countries. It is obvious that if Finland joined NATO without Sweden, it would harm the relationship between the two countries. Nevertheless, Finland has one of the longest borders to Russia compared to Sweden, which doesn’t share a border at all. It seems Finland’s security concerns may trump the close ties between Helsinki and Stockholm.

Türkiye Raises the Stakes Against Sweden’s NATO Accession

The reason Erdoğan is more willing to accept Finnish membership is not about Finland itself; it is more of a statement against Sweden.

Earlier this year, Erdoğan demanded that both Finland and Sweden hand over what he believes is 130 “terrorists”, which they both declined. However, the people in question are mainly journalists and demonstrators who are critical of the Ankara regime. How many of those are from Sweden and Finland is not crystal clear. Yet in g the last year, 73 people from Sweden have been numerously mentioned in the media.

Editor’s Pick: Swedish and Finnish NATO Ratification, Hungarian Discussions Hint at Further Delays 

Even though Sweden and Finland refuse to give the “terrorists” to Türkiye, Stockholm has more of these individuals than Helsinki – and a much weaker relationship with Ankara, placing it in a larger predicament.

As has been stated publicly, Finland will not join NATO without Sweden, and for Erdoğan to only accept Finland can be a way of putting pressure on both countries to acquiesce to his demands. Moreover, the relationship Sweden has with Türkiye is also far more complicated and complex.

For instance, during Ramadan in April 2022, Rasmus Paludan, a far-right Danish-Swedish politician, burned the Qu’ran in the Swedish city of Jönköping – with permission from the Swedish police. He would later attempt to hold a demonstration in Linköping as well, but this never happened due to subsequent riots. The riots involved people attacking the Swedish police, burning cars and throwing rocks at police cars. Both civilians and police were wounded in the altercations. The riots continued for four days, following Paludan wherever he was permitted to have demonstrations and continue burning the Qu’ran.

In January, the Qu’ran was again burned outside of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm as a part of another rally held by Paludan. It led to protests outside of Swedish embassies in Muslim countries such as Türkiye, Iraq and Indonesia. Since then, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has urged Swedes travelling to Türkiye to be cautious. This is one of the reasons Erdoğan said he would disapprove of Sweden as a member of NATO and displays the bad relationship Sweden has with Türkiye.

In Sweden, Paludan was able to hold the manifestations because of The Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression, which is part of the Swedish constitution. In Finland, however, the Finnish police said they would not allow Qu’ran burning because it would violate religious peace.

Additionally, in January this year, a doll resembling Erdoğan was hung outside of the Stockholm City hall, which made the Turkish government demand that the people who did this be held accountable. The Swedish Prosecution Authority said there would be no preliminary investigation because no crime had been committed. However, both Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Foreign Minister Tobias Billström condemned the act as a way to sabotage the NATO application for Sweden.

Hungary Goes Against NATO Enlargement for Domestic Political Gains

While Erdoğan uses differing cultural milieus and security concerns to explain his hesitancy, another problem for the Nordic countries is rising closer to home. A few weeks ago, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán urged his party, Fidesz, to support Finland’s and Sweden’s application for membership in NATO; however, Orbán is known for flipping the script whenever it suits him.

Orbán announced last Friday that serious discussions would have to be made prior to any ratification of NATO membership. This particular statement was made on the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, and it was not a coincidence. It is a way for Orbán to make headlines and possibly force concessions from the EU regarding his government’s rule of law violations, and this is why he is delaying the membership with both Sweden and Finland.

Compared to Türkiye, Hungary has good relations with both Finland and Sweden. Hungary, for example, has been leasing Gripen-aircrafts from Sweden since the beginning of their NATO membership. The one thing that holds Orbán back is his relationship with Russia.

Hungary is highly dependent on Russian energy, and Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said last week that Hungary will vote against Russian sanctions due to nuclear energy deals with Russian companies.

Then again, if Türkiye eventually says yes to Sweden and Finland, it will be up to Hungary to save the day, and only for a minor ransom. Orbán probably sees this as an opportunity to portray himself as a knight in shining armour and get all the media attention he loves…while gaining some much-needed EU funds in the process.



Featured image uses: “Prime Minister Marin in European Council” (CC BY 2.0) by FinnishGovernment; “Swedish Prime Minister outlines prioriti” (CC BY 2.0) by European Parliament;”Reunión Bilateral – Mauricio Macri y Re” (CC BY 2.0) by G20 Argentina

Your Central European Intelligence

Democratic security comes at a price. What is yours?
Subscribe now for full access to expert analysis and policy debate on Central Europe.


Weekly updates with our latest articles and the editorial commentary.