Türkiye has decided to begin the process of ratifying Finland's NATO membership, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Friday, stressing what he said were concrete steps by Helsinki to address Ankara's concerns.
The announcement came after Erdoğan met his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto for talks in the capital Ankara, a day after the latter visited Türkiye's southeastern region that was struck by devastating earthquakes last month.
Finland's bid for accession to the NATO alliance dominated the agenda of the two leaders' meeting, Erdoğan told a news conference alongside Niinisto.
"We have decided to start the protocol of Finland's accession to NATO in our Parliament," he said, citing the country's efforts to keep its promises as part of a memorandum that was inked in Madrid last June.
Erdoğan expressed hopes Finland's NATO membership would be ratified before presidential and parliamentary elections, which are set for May 14.
For his part, Niinisto welcomed Türkiye's plan.
"We understood earlier on that you had made your decision and signing it today confirms that the Turkish Parliament will start to work with the ratification of Finnish membership," he said.
"It is surely, for all of Finland, very important," Niinisto noted.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan noted Türkiye is not ready to approve Sweden's bid yet, saying Sweden has not responded positively to Ankara's extradition requests for terrorists and has embraced them.
"Türkiye will continue to hold discussions with Sweden on terrorism-related issues, Stockholm's NATO membership will directly rely on their measures," he said.
Sweden's Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom on Friday said he regretted Türkiye's decision to hold off moving forward on his country's NATO bid, while pushing ahead with that of Finland.
"This is a development that we did not want, but that we were prepared for," Billstrom told journalists, adding that the country's priority was now securing ratifications from the two holdouts — Türkiye and Hungary.
However, he said he was still not ready to move forward on Sweden, which submitted its bid together with Finland in May of last year.
In another setback for Sweden, Hungary announced Friday that it would vote on Finland's ratification on March 27, but Sweden's bid would be decided on "later."
Billstrom declined to comment on the news from Hungary, saying he had no confirmation from Budapest.
"We are doing everything that is written in this memorandum, but we do not do less and we do not do more than what is written in it," he said.
"This means that when extradition cases arise that are related to this memorandum, there will be decisions that can be positive and that can be negative from Turkey's point of view and that is how it will simply be," he added.
Finland and Sweden, which long adhered to military non-alignment policies, sought NATO membership as the Russia-Ukraine conflict escalated. Their applications were accepted at a June NATO summit, but that summit was only a statement of intent.
The bids still needed to be ratified by all 30 of the alliance members' parliaments, a process that stalled once it reached Türkiye and Hungary.
Erdoğan, in January, said he was happy with the progress Finland was making and was ready to put its ratification before Parliament. NATO had hoped to formally welcome both countries at another summit planned for July in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
But Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson acknowledged on Tuesday that the likelihood of Finland joining NATO on its own had "increased."
Finnish President Niinisto then said on Wednesday that he had been invited to Türkiye by Erdoğan to personally "receive the answer when they announce the decision" on NATO.
Ankara has been blocking the accessions, citing what it sees as insufficient commitment among the two NATO applicants to fight terrorism, primarily in reference to Sweden and the PKK and Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ).
A trilateral memorandum the sides inked in Madrid last June won Ankara the concrete promises it had demanded, especially in anti-terrorism laws, terrorist extraditions and the lifting of an arms embargo.
The deal envisages Finland and Sweden, as future NATO allies, to exhibit full solidarity and cooperation with Türkiye in the fight against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, against all threats to its national security. But Türkiye suspended trilateral talks for the two countries’ applications in late January after Sweden authorized a far-right figure to burn a copy of the Quran under police protection in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm and allowed PKK terrorist sympathizers to hold anti-Türkiye rallies.
The desecration of the Quran prompted strong protests in the Muslim world, with Türkiye calling Paludan an “Islam-hating charlatan” and strongly condemning the permission by authorities for the provocative act, which it said, “clearly constitutes a hate crime.”
The stand-off between Ankara and Stockholm prompted Finnish officials to hint for the first time in January that they might be forced to seek NATO membership without Sweden. Ankara’s insistent call for consideration of its concerns has been at times interpreted as an “unwillingness” to support NATO and “deliberately blocking” its enlargement. Many Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have consistently denied such claims.
“We may deliver Finland a different message (on their NATO application), and Sweden would be shocked when they see our message. But Finland should not make the same mistake Sweden did,” Erdoğan said during a televised speech in January. He also repeated his demand for Sweden to hand over suspects sought by Ankara. “If you absolutely want to join NATO, you will return these terrorists to us,” Erdoğan said in January. “We gave Sweden a list of 120 people and told them to extradite those terrorists in their country. If you don’t extradite them, then sorry about that,” he underlined.
Sweden has approved a constitutional amendment that enables it to enact stricter anti-terror laws demanded by Ankara. Türkiye has also been outraged by a Swedish prosecutor’s decision not to press charges against PKK terrorist sympathizers who hung an effigy of Erdoğan by its ankles outside Stockholm City Court earlier.
The talks in Ankara put more pressure on Hungary's Parliament to end its own ratification delays. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban enjoys a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has numerous disputes with both NATO and the European Union. The Hungarian Parliament began debating the two NATO bids at the beginning of the month. But Orban's ruling party said on Tuesday it will not be meeting next week because of a breakdown of separate negotiations with Brussels over EU funding.