ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said Friday that his government would move forward with ratifying Finland’s NATO application, paving the way for the country to join the military bloc ahead of Sweden.
The breakthrough came as Finnish President Sauli Niinisto was in Ankara to meet with Erdogan. Both Finland and Sweden applied to become NATO members 10 months ago in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, abandoning decades of nonalignment.
NATO requires the unanimous approval of its 30 existing members to expand, and Turkey and Hungary are the only countries that have not yet ratified the Nordic nation’s bids. The Turkish government accused both Sweden and Finland of being too soft on groups that it deems to be terror organizations, but expressed more reservations about Sweden.
“When it comes to fulfilling its pledges in the trilateral memorandum of understanding, we have seen that Finland has taken authentic and concrete steps,” Erdogan told a news conference in Ankara following his meeting with Niinisto.
“This sensitivity for our country’s security and, based on the progress that has been made in the protocol for Finland’s accession to NATO, we have decided to initiate the ratification process in our parliament,” the president added.
With Erdogan’s agreement, Finland’s application can now go to the Turkish parliament, where the president’s party and its allies hold a majority. Ratification is expected before Turkey holds its presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May 14.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg applauded the agreement.
“I welcome today’s decision by Turkey to move ahead with the ratification of Finland’s membership in NATO,” he said in a statement Friday. “This will strengthen Finland’s security, it will strengthen Sweden’s security, and it will strengthen NATO’s security. …
“The most important thing is that both Finland and Sweden become full members of NATO quickly, not whether they join at exactly the same time,” Stoltenberg noted.
Erdogan had suggested Wednesday that his country might take up Finland’s accession following Niinisto’s trip.
Turkey, Finland and Sweden signed an agreement in June of last year to resolve differences over the Nordic states’ membership.
The document included clauses addressing Ankara’s claims that Stockholm and Helsinki did not take seriously enough its concerns with those it considers terrorists, particularly supporters of Kurdish militants who have waged a 39-year insurgency in Turkey and people Ankara associates with a 2016 coup attempt.
A series of separate demonstrations in Stockholm, including a protest by an anti-Islam activist who burned the Quran outside the Turkish Embassy, also angered Turkish officials.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and lawmakers have repeatedly promised to ratify the two country’s NATO membership applications. But the country’s parliament has repeatedly postponed a ratification vote and hasn’t given a firm date on when the vote would take place.
Erdogan on Wednesday suggested that his country may soon agree to Finland’s application to join NATO. Turkish officials previously said that Finland joining ahead of Sweden was a more likely outcome.
Niinisto arrived in Turkey on Thursday and toured areas affected by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that killed more than 52,000 people in Turkey and Syria last month.
“I have known Erdogan for a long time. I am sure he has important messages,” Niinisto said Thursday while visiting Kahramanmaras, one of the provinces worst-hit by the Feb. 6 earthquake.
Before leaving Helsinki, Niinisto said Turkish officials had requested his presence in Ankara to announce Turkey’s decision on the Finnish bid. He also stressed his support for Sweden’s swift admission and in a Twitter post said he had had a “good conversation” with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson prior to his Turkey trip.
Kristersson said Sweden hoped for “a rapid ratification process” after Turkey’s May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections.
Military Times staff contributed to this report.