President Biden met with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on Wednesday in a show of support for Sweden to be allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ahead of next week’s high-profile summit of NATO leaders in Lithuania.
Sweden’s bid to join the alliance has been blocked over objections from Turkey and Hungary. But Biden underscored the United States’ support for its membership at the White House alongside Kristersson.
“Sweden is a capable and committed partner,” Biden said, adding, “I want to reiterate the United States fully, fully, fully supports Sweden’s membership in NATO. The bottom line is simple: Sweden is going to make our alliance stronger.”
Kristersson noted that Sweden and the United States share priorities, key among them supporting Ukraine’s defense against Russia. Kristersson said he “highly appreciates” the U.S. support for its NATO bid.
“We also do think that we have things to contribute,” Kristersson said.
Sweden and Finland — two nations who once prided their neutrality — announced that they were seeking NATO membership in May 2022 in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Only Finland has been allowed in so far, in large part because of Turkey’s resistance to Sweden. (Adding a country to NATO requires the support of all alliance members.)
From the outset, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the bids to challenge Sweden for granting asylum to members of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a long insurgency in Turkey and is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. Protests against Erdogan in Sweden, including a recent one in which a Quran was burned, have further damaged ties.
At last year’s summit, Erdogan cut a deal with Finland and Sweden, agreeing to bless both bids if certain conditions were met. Although senior NATO and U.S. officials have said both countries met those conditions, only Finland moved forward, joining the alliance in April of this year.
While Sweden toughened its anti-terrorism laws in May to win over Erdogan, the Turkish president said the Nordic country is not being tough enough on the PKK. On Monday, he doubled down on his stance against Sweden’s membership, signaling that the impasse might not be resolved before next week’s summit.
“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.”
Sweden, he said, still has “homework” to do to join the alliance.
Biden’s meeting with Kristersson sent an important signal to Turkey that the United States will stand by Sweden, but it remains to be seen whether a last-ditch push from the White House changes the timeline or trajectory.
“It is important that it is happening, that the U.S. is embracing Sweden at this point, that the U.S. is supporting this process despite harsh rhetoric from Turkey,” said Anna Wieslander, director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council. “But the question is: Can Biden do anything to change the picture?”
Meanwhile, Hungary, led by the ultraconservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has long delayed a vote on Sweden’s membership bid, angering the United States. Orban has alleged that Swedish leaders have “lied” about the status of Hungary’s democracy, and the country has also made demands of Sweden.
Resolving the impasse on Swedish membership is important for Biden and for NATO as a whole. The president cited the Nordic neighbors’ decision to join the alliance as proof that Russian President Vladimir Putin miscalculated when he launched his full-scale war.
Putin “thought he’d get the Finlandization of NATO,” Biden said at the NATO summit in Madrid last year. “Instead he got the NATOization of Finland — and Sweden.”
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Biden administration remained confident that Sweden would be admitted into NATO and has encouraged Turkey and Hungary to approve the country’s application “as soon as possible.” Sweden, she said, has “fulfilled the commitments they made” in the deal with Turkey and Finland last year.
“Sweden is a strong, capable defense partner that shares NATO’s values and will strengthen the alliance and contribute to European security,” she said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who will meet with senior officials from Turkey, Sweden and Finland on Thursday, said Sweden’s membership should come soon.
“The time is now to welcome Sweden as a full member of NATO,” he said.
Emily Rauhala contributed to this report.