BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg played down on Tuesday the importance of Finland and Sweden joining the world’s biggest security organization at the same time as Turkey refuses to ratify their membership, mostly due to a dispute with Sweden.
“The main question is not whether Finland and Sweden are ratified together. The main question is that they are both ratified as full members as soon as possible,” Stoltenberg told reporters. The long-held consensus at NATO has been that both the Nordic neighbors should join at the same time.
Sweden and neighboring Finland abandoned decades of nonalignment and applied to join the 30-nation alliance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All NATO members except Turkey and Hungary have ratified their accession, but unanimity is required.
Turkey has accused the government in Stockholm of being too lenient toward groups it deems as terror organizations or existential threats, including Kurdish groups. Earlier this month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara has fewer problems with Finland joining.
He stressed, however, that it was up to the military alliance to decide whether to accept one country only or the Nordic duo together. So far, Finland has stood by Sweden and insisted they should join NATO’s ranks together.
Stoltenberg said that he is “confident that both will be full members and are working hard to get both ratified as soon as possible.” It had been hoped that both countries would be welcomed in at NATO’s next summit in Lithuania in July.
Turkey was rocked last week by a devastating earthquake and aftershocks that killed more than 35,000 people in the country and neighboring Syria.
“We are all horrified by the terrible toll caused by the earthquakes” in Turkey, Stoltenberg said, adding that NATO allies are providing emergency support to the huge rescue and recovery operation.
Turkey is in an election year, and the topic of Nordic membership of NATO is a possible vote winner. In recent weeks, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed anger at a series of separate demonstrations in Stockholm. In one case a solitary anti-Islam activist burned the Quran outside the Turkish Embassy, while in an unconnected protest an effigy of Erdogan was hanged.
In Stockholm, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said he could see no reason why Turkey should continue to object, but that “it is a question of a Turkish decision which neither Sweden nor Finland can influence.”
Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said it would be “unfortunate” if Finland entered NATO first, the Swedish news agency TT reported.
Of the two countries, only Finland shares a border with Russia and would appear to be more at risk should President Vladimir Putin decide to target his neighbor. That said, some NATO allies, led by the United States, have offered security guarantees to both should they come under threat.
Hungary has pushed back its ratification date for both countries three times so far but has not publicly raised any substantial objections to either of them joining.
Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed.