When Finland’s flag was raised for the first time over Nato’s European headquarters on Tuesday, Swedish foreign minister Tobias Billström was there only as an observer.
Insisting he was “happy” for his Nordic neighbour, the 49-year-old chief diplomat said “the fact that Finland becomes a Nato member is good for both Finland and Sweden’s security”.
But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. A year ago, rattled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the two countries decided to mothball their non-allied status – in Sweden’s case, after two centuries – and join Nato hand-in-hand.
They hadn’t reckoned with president Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a Nato member since 1952. As accessions require members’ unanimous backing, he withheld support in protest over how Stockholm deals with Sweden-resident members of Kurdish groups which Ankara views as terrorists.
After months of tensions over this and other issues, Turkey signed a trilateral memorandum last June that detailed its concerns but also opened the door to invitee status for Finland and Sweden.
While Helsinki worked away quietly on accession and secured Turkish support, anxious Swedish diplomats shuttled back and forth to Ankara with their to-do list. Panic set in last January when a Danish far-right campaigner burned a copy of the Koran outside Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm; Ankara paused the talks entirely.
After looking crestfallen in January and February, a more relaxed Mr Billström says now he has “high hopes” that Sweden will join in July.
His newfound ease was palpable on Tuesday after talks with US secretary of state Antony Blinken. In him, and leading White House officials, Sweden has powerful advocates in the stand-off with Turkey who are not afraid to make its accession bid part of a trade-off for US disaster aid after February’s earthquake.
Mr Billström told Wednesday’s Svenska Dagbladet daily that Sweden was entering a new phase, pivoting away from its focus on Turkey to “work with the Nato allies who have already ratified”.
Finland and Sweden are the two biggest catches for Nato since the fall of the Berlin Wall— Magnus Christiansson, senior lecturer at the Swedish Defence Academy, Stockholm
Alongside the US, Sweden’s loudest cheerleader inside the alliance is its newest member. Pushing the military geographical argument, Finnish president Sauli Niinistö has made clear that Finnish membership is not complete until Sweden is also a member.
In the final stretch, Sweden’s pivot reflects a belief in Stockholm that, after adjusting terrorism legislation and making other fixes, there is little more they can do in advance of the Turkish general election. After the earthquake wild card, though, some Swedish officials worry their application will become hostage to domestic post-vote recriminations.
“Finland and Sweden are the two biggest catches for Nato since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” said Magnus Christiansson, senior lecturer at the Swedish Defence Academy in Stockholm. “But Turkey’s elections are the big unknown now. This could be a big showdown for Erdogan and it could be messy, so that not even Turkish experts can say what will happen.”
For the coming months, and possibly longer, Sweden is the last non-aligned piece in the Baltic Sea puzzle, outside Nato’s Article Five mutual defence pact, which regards an attack on one member as an attack on all. Even though Sweden is more or less surrounded by Nato members, the risk of a military attack from Russia – even though it is preoccupied in Ukraine – cannot be ruled out entirely.
Though Stockholm has struck defence agreements with the UK and other countries, building on a similar EU agreement, no one cares to speculate on how robust and binding such political agreements will prove if they are actually tested.
For Swedish security analyst Jan Hallenberg, such deals are, by their nature, “less binding and less secure” than Article Five. “I can imagine they can provide support,” he told the Svenska Dagbladet, “but it is impossible to know at this point the forms of support and who would participate.”
For Sweden, the nervous wait continues.