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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden hosts Sweden’s prime minister as the Nordic nation looks to join NATO

President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 5, 2023.

By Katie Rogers and Michael Crowley

As President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden at the White House on Wednesday, both men are hoping for the Nordic nation’s swift acceptance into NATO.

But that looks highly unlikely — and the issue threatens to disrupt the alliance’s planned show of unity against Russia next week at a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The problem facing Biden and Kristersson is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Erdogan has blocked Sweden’s membership bid, saying Sweden has harbored Kurdish exiles and refugees affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.

In a statement, the White House said that Biden and Kristersson would “reaffirm their view that Sweden should join NATO as soon as possible.”

The issue is critical for NATO, which is loath to show signs of internal division at its annual summit, particularly as the war in Ukraine grinds on. Sweden broke from decades of neutrality following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year by seeking to join NATO. Erdogan has also invested himself deeply in the matter, having long insisted that Western nations do not take his concerns about Kurdish terrorism seriously enough.

Every other member of the NATO alliance has approved Sweden’s membership, apart from Hungary, whose foreign minister said Tuesday that his country would sign off once Turkey had done so, according to Bloomberg.

Western officials have worked for months to placate the Turkish leader, to no avail. And while U.S. officials say the matter is one for Turkey and Sweden to resolve directly, Biden has said he supports the sale of new F-16 fighter jets and upgrade kits that Erdogan has long sought from Washington.

U.S. officials insist their support for the arms sale is not linked to Erdogan’s position on Sweden. But after a late May phone call with the Turkish leader, Biden told reporters: “He still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden, so let’s get that done.”

Key members of Congress, including the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, say they will block such a deal unless Erdogan makes way for Swedish membership. Analysts say it is unclear whether Biden can convince them to change their position.

As recently as Monday, Erdogan reiterated his opposition to Sweden’s admission in bitter terms.

“We have made it clear that the determined fight against terrorist organizations and Islamophobia are our red line,” Erdogan said. “Everyone must accept that Turkey’s friendship cannot be won by supporting terrorism or by making space for terrorists.”

Erdogan has been dug in since last spring, when Sweden and Finland first applied together to join the alliance, in what Biden depicted as a major setback for President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

The Turkish leader has since relented on Finland, which won the required unanimous approval to join the alliance in April, becoming its 31st member.

But even after a May reelection victory that U.S. officials hoped would allow Erdogan to relax his position, as well as the implementation of a new Swedish anti-terrorism law, he has stood his ground on Sweden.

Recent events could complicate matters with predominantly Muslim Turkey: Two men burned pages from a Quran outside a Stockholm mosque last week, in a demonstration that Sweden’s police and a court had approved.

During a joint news conference with Turkey’s foreign minister on June 12, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Sweden had addressed Turkey’s concerns “appropriately and effectively.” He added that the Biden administration’s “expectation is that this will happen by the time of the Vilnius Summit in July.”

Biden has been firm about Sweden’s eventual membership: “It will happen,” he said in a June 1 commencement address to the U.S. Air Force Academy. “I promise you.”

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