Home / Articles / NATO Bid Puts Pressure on Sweden’s Domestic Politics
By holding up Sweden’s NATO bid and making demands for domestic policy changes, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungary’s Victor Orban have become factors in Swedish politics. This represents a serious wake-up call for a country where foreign policy has rarely had serious domestic implications.
The government has put forward a legal proposal officially criminalizing participation in, and support for, terrorist organizations. While the proposal was initially prepared in response to a terrorist attack in Stockholm in 2017, it recently became more urgent when Turkey demanded Sweden strengthen its anti-terror efforts (aimed at Kurdish groups in particular) for Turkey to agree on Sweden’s NATO accession.
To counter Turkish and Hungarian obstruction, the United States should take the lead in negotiations over Sweden’s bid to join NATO. Stockholm does not have the leverage to deal with Ankara and Budapest on its own.
It’s an old truism that all politics is local. Today, Sweden is experiencing that truism perhaps more strongly than ever before in its recent past. The country is seeking to enter NATO and has the full support of the alliance except, that is, two countries: Turkey and Hungary.
Sweden announced its intention to seek NATO membership shortly after Russia’s invasion attempt began and said it would do so together with Finland. However, Finland formally joined the alliance on April 4 without Sweden.
Turkey and Hungary are blocking Sweden’s NATO bid even though they were prepared to let Finland join the alliance. Turkey has claimed that Sweden’s anti-terror laws are not sufficient to let it join NATO. Ankara demanded, among other things, that Sweden break ties with a Syrian-Kurdish separatist guerilla, YPG, which Stockholm had previously pledged to support as part of a deal by the Social Democrats to retain the parliamentary majority. Turkey also insisted Sweden lift weapons sanctions on Turkey and increase cooperation on anti-terror measures. At first, Turkey demanded Sweden extradite alleged members of Kurdish separatist groups (primarily PKK) and the Gülen movement. As negotiations have evolved, Ankara’s central demand has settled on Sweden getting tougher on terrorism and severing all ties with Kurdish nationalists. The government’s chief negotiator, Oskar Stenström, has said negotiations remain essentially inactive for the time being and many expect they will remain so until Turkey’s parliamentary elections taking place on May 14th. The unofficial “target date” remains July, as Sweden as well as its backers within NATO aim for Sweden to participate in the organization’s Vilnius summit on July 11th–12th. US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, visited Sweden on April 19th this year to reiterate US support for Sweden’s candidacy, confirming the July summit as the target date.
Hungary’s resistance is much more recent. Therefore, it remains harder to identify the Hungarian government’s red lines and core demands. On March 7, a delegation from Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz visited Sweden, expressing demands of “more respect for Hungary and the Hungarian people.” Their motivation is Sweden’s criticism (together with the rest of the European Union) of Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian rule. The vice speaker of the Hungarian parliament, Csaba Hende, who was part of the delegation, said their main message was that the Hungarian government largely supports Swedish NATO membership. At the same time, he said Sweden needs to stop criticizing Hungary for deficiencies in its rule of law, suggesting relations will look different after this “new start.” Under previous Social Democratic rule, Sweden often took the lead in the European Union’s criticism of the politicization of Hungary’s judicial system and other authoritarian tendencies under President Victor Orban, leading Hungary to perceive Sweden as sitting on a “crumbling throne of moral superiority”, in the words of one Hungarian government official.
Erdoğan and Orban are both authoritarian leaders with strongman reputations they are eager to protect. They are also, like many political leaders, opportunists. Not using Sweden’s NATO bid to score political points would have been a wasted opportunity for both leaders. Turkey has been quarreling with Sweden from early in the process, and Hungary announced on February 28th its parliament won’t ratify Sweden’s accession without negotiations. Still, the extent to which both Turkey and Hungary have come to impact Sweden’s domestic politics, largely unforeseen before it decided to apply, is striking.
Even before Sweden’s bid to join NATO, foreign policy issues were increasingly affecting Swedish domestic politics. One illustrative example was the deal struck in 2021 by the (then) Social Democratic minority government with Amineh Kakabaveh, a former member of parliament for the Left, who was excluded from the party in August 2019 after she became vocal about what she saw as permissive attitudes toward Islamist oppression in Swedish suburbs within her own party. She resigned from the party but stayed in parliament as an independent. This is itself very rare in Swedish politics, as attested to by the term for an independent member of parliament—“political savage” or, in a kinder interpretation, “political wildcard” (politisk vilde). To ensure Kakabaveh’s support, the Social Democrat’s party secretary struck another deal with the independent member of parliament in November 2021. This deal included a promise that the government would deepen its cooperation and support for the Kurdish armed group PYD, which operates in Syria and took a significant part in the fight against Islamic State.
Kakabaveh agreed to abstain in a vote of no confidence called by the opposition against then-prime minister Stefan Löfven, a Social Democrat, in exchange for a list of demands. The process repeated itself during the fall of 2021 when Löfven resigned and his anointed successor, Social Democrat Magdalena Andersson, who until then served as finance minister, needed enough parliamentary support to become prime minister.
At the time, the Social Democrats likely saw the agreement as a blessing from above. Voters care famously little about foreign policy and the Social Democrats, most likely, didn’t expect their deal with Kakabaveh would have any practical foreign policy implications.
For decades, Sweden has prided itself in being a “humanitarian superpower”—a country that stands solidly for human rights and fairness in international politics. It has therefore often been a vocal critic of authoritarian tendencies in both Turkey and Hungary, with little regard for actual consequences for its foreign policy environment. Foreign policy has historically been seen by voters as largely irrelevant, leading to politicians sometimes seeing it mainly as a tool for domestic political posturing.
This attitude changed fast when Russia launched its invasion attempt in Ukraine in 2022, drastically reshaping the geopolitical situation in Europe and the world. The Social Democrats went from fiercely opposing NATO membership to being for it only within a few weeks. Even after the Russian invasion, the prime minister said seeking NATO membership would be “destabilizing”, implying that the West needed to appease Russia. On March 30, however, a little over a month since the invasion started, Prime Minister Andersson made the historical suggestion that Sweden might seek NATO membership.
This all put the deal with Kakabaveh front and center in foreign policy making. Erdoğan—unexpectedly so—announced the same day that Turkey would not approve Sweden and Finland’s collective application without conditions. Turkey seized, above all, upon what it claimed was Swedish support for Kurdish terrorism threatening Turkey’s territorial integrity. This is only one of several issues where Turkey has placed demands on Sweden to admit it into NATO, and the country would likely have put up stumbling blocks to Sweden’s accession regardless. Nonetheless, it is a striking example of how a foreign policy decision made from an entirely domestic rationale came to have consequences far beyond what the government thought at the time.
Swedish Responses at Home
Negotiations with Turkey have since dragged on and currently remain stalled, with Sweden seeming to wait out Turkey’s May elections before making a serious push. Sweden says it has implemented the measures agreed upon with Turkey at a NATO meeting in Madrid in June 2022. One of the most concrete results domestically the Swedish government points to is a recently proposed law to criminalize participation in organizations classified as terrorist groups, for which the government is currently under heavy criticism from the opposition and liberal voices.
The law did not originate with the NATO process but Sweden’s bid for accession made it more urgent to strengthen anti-terror legislation. Laws criminalizing participation in a terrorist group have been under preparation at least since the terror attack in central Stockholm in 2017. Sweden has long had troublingly lax laws against terrorism. This became particularly evident during the Islamic State’swar in Syria and Iraq, when several hundred Swedes traveled to the region to join the Caliphate, in most cases with impunity.
The law’s central objective is to outlaw participation in terrorist organizations. Such a law is fully necessary and should have been passed much sooner, not least when Sweden saw more citizens per capita than any other European country flood to join the Islamic State. At the same time, the timing and framing of the law cannot be divorced from the NATO issue. The government has pointed to the law to claim that they’ve conformed to Turkey’s most central demands.
The law appears to have been pushed through considerably faster as a result of the NATO process. The proposal has faced strong criticism not only from the opposition, but most significantly by the Swedish Council on Legislation (Lagrådet). The council serves as a judicial review board for new legislation before it is put forth in the parliament, directing heavy criticism against the law at its proposal stage.
The Council only has advisory power but its criticism of the proposal was so fierce—it explicitly advised that it “not form the basis for legislation” —that passing it in its current form would be controversial. Still, it was passed by the parliament in March without much opposition, since all parties but the two that are outright opposed to NATO membership, the Greens and the Left, see it as so essential for national security. Although the government has long planned a law such as this, the urgency makes it clear that the law is partially aimed at appeasing Turkey and giving Erdoğan a “win” that he can tout domestically. The new law will come into effect in June.
Few of Hungary’s demands on Sweden are specific or concrete. Orban is taking revenge against what he sees as high-browed Western European critics of his authoritarian tendencies—to the great frustration of other NATO countries—as well as aligning his country more closely with Turkey. He seeks to pressure Swedish and Finnish politicians to renounce their former criticism of his government, and use the NATO application as leverage to get the EU to release the millions of dollars of aid currently frozen as a response to Orban’s reforms to increase political control over the judiciary. There will, however, be a limit to how far Swedish officials can go in appeasing them. Extraditing individuals to Turkey through political decisions, for example, as Erdoğan demands, is legally and formally impossible for Sweden to do.
Sweden Needs American Pressure
In hindsight, Sweden and Finland may have made a strategic mistake in not simply leaving negotiations with Turkey up to the United States. Peter Wolodarski, editor of Sweden’s largest daily newspaper and one of the strongest liberal voices in the country, has convincingly argued that Sweden greatly underestimated the damage Erdoğan was prepared to cause to hold up Sweden’s candidacy. Furthermore, the government could—and should—have stated that it was satisfied with the security guarantees given by NATO’s most central powers, including the United States, last year in connection with its application. There was never any need to rush the formal process to begin with after these security guarantees, which in practice made Sweden a member of the alliance’s defense umbrella. With Sweden’s urgency out of the picture, there would have been space for the United States to take a bigger part in the negotiations and make it into a transatlantic issue rather than a bilateral one between Sweden and Turkey.
After seven decades of military non-alignment, Finland joined NATO on April 4. Due to Turkish and Hungarian opposition, Sweden remains on the outside looking in, at least for now. Many expect that Erdoğan will cool down his attitude following the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in May this year. Along the way, Sweden will have received a rude wakeup call that foreign and domestic politics are rarely truly separate, if ever.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.