Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that his country might approve Sweden's membership in NATO if European Union nations open the way to Turkey's bid to join the EU.
Erdogan publicly linked Sweden's membership in the Western military alliance and his country's long-stalled application to become part of the EU for the first time before departing Ankara for a NATO summit that starts Tuesday in Lithuania's capital.
He told US President Joe Biden during a telephone call Sunday that Turkey wanted a clear and strong message of support for Turkey's EU ambitions from the NATO leaders meeting in Vilnius, according to his office. The White House readout of the Biden-Erdogan call did not mention the issue of Turkish membership in the EU.
“Turkey has been waiting at the door of the European Union for over 50 years now, and almost all of the NATO member countries are now members of the European Union," Erdogan said Monday. "I am making this call to these countries that have kept Turkey waiting at the gates of the European Union for more than 50 years,” he said.
“Come and open the way for Turkey's membership in the European Union. When you pave the way for Turkey, we'll pave the way for Sweden as we did for Finland,” he added. Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson were expected to meet later Monday in Vilnius.
Asked about Erdogan's comments, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he supports Turkey's ambition to join the EU but noted that it wasn't among the conditions listed in an agreement that Sweden, Finland and Turkey signed at last year's NATO summit in Madrid.
Stoltenberg reiterated that Sweden had met those conditions and said he thinks it is still possible to have a positive decision on the country's pending membership during this week's summit in Lithuania.
Turkey is a candidate to join the EU, but democratic backsliding during Erdogan's presidency, disputes with EU-member Cyprus and other issues have held up the country's progress toward admission in the 27-nation bloc.
However, as a member of NATO, Erdogan's government has postponed ratifying Sweden's NATO accession, saying the administration in Stockholm needs to do more to crack down on Kurdish militants and other groups that Ankara consider as threats to its national security.
Anti-Turkey and anti-Islam protests in Sweden's capital raised doubts that an agreement to satisfy Turkey's demands could be reached before the alliance's summit.
Earlier Monday, Sweden's foreign minister expressed optimism that Turkey would drop its objections and said the Nordic country's accession was a question of when, not if.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrm told public broadcaster SVT that he expected Turkey to signal eventually that it is ready for Sweden to join the 31-nation military alliance, though he couldn't say whether that would happen at the annual summit.
“What we are counting on, of course, is to reach a point where we get a message back from President Erdogan that there will be what you might call a green light(,)...a message that the ratification process in the Turkish Parliament can start,” Billstrm said.
Erdogan on Monday repeated that Turkey expected Sweden to fulfil its pledge to crackdown on groups that Ankara considers to be terrorists. "We are tired of repeatedly saying that (Sweden) needs to fight terrorist organisations and their extensions indiscriminately," Erdogan said.
Billstrm said Sweden has fulfilled its part of the deal with Finland and Turkey.
“We should consider it as a settled question in the sense that it is not a question of if. In connection with the NATO summit in Madrid last year, Turkey already gave Sweden status as an invitee to NATO. It is therefore a question of when," he said.
Billstrm said he expected Hungary, which also hasn't ratified Sweden's accession, to do so before Turkey. Previously non-aligned Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership last year following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Finland joined in April following Turkish ratification.