The war in Ukraine has forced a major rethink in European security, with both Sweden and Finland abandoning their long-standing policy of non-alignment and applying for NATO membership last year. But while Finland was admitted into NATO this April, delays have persisted on Sweden’s entry, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan linking a serious of unrelated issues to Ankara’s ratification of Sweden’s accession – the latest of which is a potential sale of US F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. We discuss what Sweden’s entry to NATO would actually mean with Sweden’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Tobias Billström.
Billström appears optimistic that Turkey and Hungary will ratify Sweden’s NATO accession at more or less the same time. “I asked my counterpart, the foreign minister of Hungary, just the other week at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting, if Hungary still holds to its promise that they won’t be the last to ratify us – meaning that once Ankara starts to ratify, Hungary will follow swiftly. And his answer was ‘yes, we still will maintain our promise’. The Hungarian parliament has already done all that is necessary. They only have a final vote left. They have done all the committee work, so they can move quite rapidly, once there is ‘white’ smoke from Ankara,” Billström says.
So what would actually change with Sweden’s membership of NATO? “Sweden’s accession is going to make a lot of improvements to NATO structures,” Billström says. “The ability to defend northern Europe would be improved. We have capabilities when it comes to submarines, air force, space and cyber, which is very welcomed by NATO. So we feel the support from NATO members, but we need to get the ratification from Turkey and Hungary.”
Billström points out that Sweden and France are natural defence partners, and hints that the two countries could cooperate even more inside NATO. “We are very strong on air force and naval capabilities, especially in submarines, on which very few countries can match us. Also, France and Sweden are the only two EU states that can launch satellites from our territory. That is something to think about,” Billström explains.
The top Swedish diplomat answers criticism that Sweden has made too many concessions on human rights in its quest to be approved by Turkey for NATO membership. He maintains that Swedish laws are “based on freedom of expression, very essential rights for everybody to say what they think and what they believe in. There has been no concession in that regard. But I would like to point out that the deliberations and cooperation between Sweden and Turkey showed that there were problems in Sweden with PKK activities, and we have dealt with that. We have taken that seriously, and that has been acknowledged by Turkey.”
We turn to the question of support for Ukraine, and to what is likely to be a difficult EU summit on December 14-15. “Everybody needs to understand that we are now at a crossroads,” Billström admits. “Everyone who doesn’t want Russia to win, has to face really difficult decisions. These decisions are about priorities; understanding that the multi-financial framework – the EU budget – cannot contain everything. We will have to abandon some things if we are to give support to Ukraine. And that is a question about political leadership.”
Migration has been a political hot potato at recent EU summits, as the EU institutions inch towards a deal on a proposed pact on migration and asylum. We put it to Billström that it might be difficult to have that pact approved in Sweden, as the far-right Sweden Democrats, on whose support the Swedish coalition government relies, have been hostile to the idea.
“There have already been negotiations in the Swedish parliament between the minister of migration and representatives of the Sweden Democrats, and they were quite successful. So I think that we will be able to overcome that hurdle. The Sweden Democrats have a right to voice their opinions. But my government and the belief of my party is that we need migration policy on the European level in order to protect our borders and also to come to terms with the root causes, which is that people migrate from countries in Africa over the Mediterranean. So we have to do this in collaboration with the Mediterranean countries, and that means that we need to have legislation which is based on a common European platform,” Billström concludes.
Produced by Juliette Laurain, Sophie Samaille and Perrine Desplats