Rasmus Paludan has a bit of form when it comes to publicly burning copies of the Muslim holy book, the Koran. But when the far-right attention-seeking Danish politician chose to do another burning job outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm on January 21, there was considerable diplomatic fallout.
Sweden, along with neighbouring Finland, decided nine months ago to utterly abandon its policies of military neutrality, which had more recently gravitated towards non-alignment, and join the west’s military alliance, Nato. It was a direct response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Nato rules require unanimous approval of all 30 member nations for new membership applications; 28 have enthusiastically signed up, but Turkey and Hungary are holding out.
European diplomats are confident Hungary will soon fall into line, but Turkey is another matter entirely as its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, faces tough presidential and parliamentary elections in
May, battling a faltering economy after two controversial decades in power.
Erdogan seized on the Koran-burning episode in the Swedish capital to stoke up his well-aired arguments against Sweden’s Nato candidature. The deplorable act of public burning, seen by many as provocation to drive other interests, caused widespread negative reaction across the Muslim world. Erdogan had already raised serious concerns about Sweden’s Nato application, given that 100,000 Kurdish people live there. He has always been easier about Finland’s position on this, as that country has an estimated 15,000 Kurdish emigres.
Ankara has long been at war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and other separatists, and part of its demands from Sweden is the extradition of 100 people accused of terrorism in Turkey.
There have been long negotiations between the two Nordic Nato applicants and Erdogan’s government, but in recent days it became clear Turkey was playing a bit of “divide and conquer” with signals of “Yes” to Finland but “No” to Sweden. This has caused huge headaches for both applicant states and for all other Nato members, including the US.
The expectation that Finland and Sweden would stick together on this issue was called into question this week. Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto said that “somewhere in the back of our minds we are considering options in case a country were to face permanent resistance”.
That outpouring put a sharp focus on a meeting between the Swedish and Finnish prime ministers in Stockholm on Thursday. The meeting between Finland’s Sanna Marin, a woman tipped as a future head of the EU Commission, and Sweden’s Ulf Kristersson quickly debunked all such speculation.
“It is in the interest of the entire alliance that we go together,” Ms Marin told reporters in Stockholm. Mr Kristersson told his Finnish counterpart: “I really appreciate these clear messages from Finland that we will be doing this together.”
The reality is that a new right-leaning Swedish government is toughening its laws against would-be terrorists and has done a good deal to address Turkish concerns.
Next month, the Stockholm parliament is expected to pass new laws proscribing the PKK and other organisations. But there are also concerns about Kurdish and other groups’ rights to peaceful protest against the Turkish and other regimes that stand accused of human rights abuses and lapses in the rule of law.
That poses difficulties about Turkish demands that Sweden clamp down on demonstrations against the Ankara government.
Overall, many well-informed observers expect Erdogan’s opposition to Sweden’s Nato application will be hugely dialled down after the May elections in Turkey. Right now, that country is in election mode.
That viewpoint is reinforced by signals that the Nato linchpin and mainstay, the US, will take a hand. The US Congress appears unlikely to support the €20bn sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey until Ankara ratifies Nato membership for Sweden and Finland, a bipartisan group of senators announced on Thursday.