May 18, 2022 - World

Strongmen spoilers threaten Western unity

The president of Turkey and prime minister of Hungary are seen smiling together.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Photo: Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images

Turkey's threat to oppose Finland and Sweden's accession to NATO has massively raised the stakes of it long-simmering tensions with the West, and given Ankara new leverage to extract concessions from its own purported allies.

Why it matters: Critics have accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of employing a "hostage-taking" tactic also practiced by Hungary, which for weeks has been singlehandedly blocking the European Union from imposing an embargo on Russian oil.

  • The outsized influence of single-member states in the EU and NATO has drawn increased scrutiny in recent years, especially as both Hungary and Turkey have drifted toward authoritarianism and strengthened their ties with Russia.
  • Their resistance to two critical Western priorities risks undermining the united front that leaders like President Biden have touted as key to effectively responding to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Driving the news: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has said he is "very confident" all NATO allies will ultimately approve Sweden and Finland's applications, will meet on Wednesday with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

  • Çavuşoğlu said Sunday that in exchange for Turkey lifting its opposition, Sweden and Finland must end their alleged support for Kurdish groups that Turkey views as terrorists and a top national security threat.
  • Turkey is also expected to use its leverage to seek bilateral concessions from the U.S., including speeding up the potential sale of F-16 fighter jets.

Between the liens: Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, director of the German Marshall Fund's office in Ankara, told Axios that Erdoğan "saw an opportunity to extract some benefits both for Turkey and for his own political standing" ahead of a crucial election next year.

  • Erdoğan believes he's "more or less free to do whatever he wants," Ünlühisarcıklı said.
  • He argued it's hard to stand up to Erdogan on this issue, given the high stakes of Sweden and Finland's NATO applications, and the unique role Turkey is playing in Ukraine as both a mediator in peace talks and supplier of highly effective drones.
  • Critics, meanwhile, say the stunt could set a precedent for other NATO leaders to essentially seek bribes in moments of crisis — with some going as far as to call Turkey a "Trojan horse" within the Western alliance.

Zoom out: That label has long been used to describe Hungary's role as a spoiler within the EU.

  • Hungary's far-right prime minister Viktor Orbán is viewed as the most pro-Russian leader in the EU, and for weeks has used his veto to prevent the bloc from banning imports of Russian oil.
  • In the meantime, Orbán has used his leverage to pressure the EU to send Hungary a financial compensation package — effectively neutralizing Brussels' landmark decision this year to withhold pandemic recovery funds from Hungary over its democratic backsliding.

What they're saying: "The thing with people like Putin or Erdoğan or Orbán is they exploit when you show weakness and don't confront them," says Daniel Freund, a German member of the European Parliament.

  • Freund, an anti-corruption activist, has advocated for eliminating the EU's unanimity requirement for major policy decisions and moving to two-thirds "qualified-majority" voting.
  • "In a situation of war, in a union of 27, we cannot operate in a way that allows blackmail," Freund argued, calling the single-member veto authority "ludicrous."

State of play: EU leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, are in favor of eliminating the veto, but several smaller states have already objected (and they have vetos, too).

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