Jun 15, 2023 - World

Flake pours cold water on odds of Sweden joining NATO before summit

Jeff Flake

Flake as a senator in 2018. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

The U.S. ambassador to Turkey, former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), acknowledged in an interview with Axios that it’s "unlikely" Sweden will be able to join NATO before next month’s summit in Vilnius.

Why it matters: The United States and other NATO members have been pressing Sweden and Turkey to resolve their differences to clear the way for the alliance's expansion after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

  • But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was recently reelected to another five-year term, indicated yesterday that his government still had concerns about Sweden’s application.
  • His opposition effectively leaves Sweden in limbo and presents a thorny diplomatic challenge for Flake, a Republican Trump critic who was awarded an ambassadorship after endorsing Biden in 2020.

What they're saying: "It seems unlikely that we'll see movement before Vilnius,” Flake told Axios in an interview. "There's still very much the possibility that it could happen at Vilnius.”

  • "The statement yesterday was a little discouraging, I think, to the Swedes,” Flake said. "They feel that they've taken the measures that they were asked to do and then some."

The big picture: At last year’s annual NATO summit, held in Madrid, the alliance formally invited Finland and Sweden to join their ranks, kick-starting a process that requires every member to approve new applicants.

  • After years of shying away from the alliance, the two Nordic countries decided to apply for membership after Russia invade Ukraine.
  • Finland was accepted in April, but Stockholm still faces opposition from Turkey, which claims that Sweden harbors Kurdish terrorists.

Driving the news: To address Turkey’s concerns, Sweden amended its constitution and bolstered antiterrorism legislation. This week, it extradited a Turkish citizen, who was a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, back to Turkey.

  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken said last month that he expected the process to be completed in weeks. This year’s annual NATO summit is taking place July 11-12 in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Between the lines: Turkey desperately wants to purchase a new batch of F-16 fighter jets from the U.S.

  • The Biden administration supports the sale, but Congress needs to approve it.
  • Lawmakers are using the potential $20 billion sale as leverage to convince Turkey to drop its opposition to Sweden’s NATO bid.

The intrigue: Biden hinted that Sweden’s NATO application and the F-16 sales were linked when he congratulated Erdoğan on his victory last month — but officials later clarified Biden’s remarks and Blinken has insisted there’s no connection.

  • But Flake has explained to his host government the political realities at home, where a group of bipartisan senators wrote a letter last February threatening to block arms sales unless Turkey agreed to Sweden and Finland’s bids.
  • “I explained to my Turkish interlocutors, the only reason they were only 29 signatures, as the other 71 probably hadn't seen it,” Flake said. “Because they would have signed it as well.”
  • "The Biden administration has not tied the two together. We explain that all the time,” he said. “There's no direct linkage there. But Congress has certainly linked the two.”

What we’re watching. Flake met with Erdoğan’s new national security adviser on Thursday. On Friday, he’ll sit down with the new foreign minister to again urged the Turkish government to drop its opposition.

  • Flake is still optimistic that a deal can be worked out, but acknowledged that more talks need to take place.
  • “There was some discussion yesterday about an additional meeting, but it hasn't been said yet,” he said. “So nothing definitive.”
  • "The sooner that this can be done, the better."
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