Murky trilateral agreement results in Turkey lifting objections to Finland and Sweden’s NATO application

29 June 2022

On the 28 June, the eve of the NATO Madrid Summit, leaders from Turkey, Finland and Sweden signed a 10-point trilateral memorandum that purportedly addressed Ankara’s security concerns and paved the way for the two Nordic countries to obtain full NATO membership. The trilateral deal was reached at a meeting in the Spanish capital between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Sauli Niinistö of Finland and the Swedish Prime Minister, Magdalena Andersson.

Andersson hailed the deal as a “very good agreement”, rejecting claims that she had conceded too much to Erdoğan in order to persuade him to drop his veto. “Taking the next step toward a full NATO membership is of course important for Sweden and Finland. But it’s also a very important step for NATO, because our countries will be security providers within NATO”, she told Agence France-Presse. Andersson said she had shown the Turkish leader changes in Sweden’s terrorism legislation set to come into force next month. “And of course, we will continue our fight against terrorism and as NATO members also do so with closer cooperation with Turkey”, the Swedish premier said.

“Our joint memorandum underscores the commitment of Finland, Sweden and Turkey to extend their full support against threats to each other’s security,” the Finnish leader said in a statement. US president Joe Biden congratulated the three countries on securing the deal, and in a statement said Finland and Sweden’s membership “will strengthen NATO’s collective security”. Biden is being credited with first raising the idea that that Finland and Sweden join NATO in a telephone call to President Niinistö on 13 December 2021.

Sweden and Finland had historically declined to seek NATO membership, partly because of mixed public opinion, caution around their security relationship with Russia and a tradition of neutrality. But that changed after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, prompting applications to join from both countries. Ratification by all 30 existing NATO member states is required, and Turkey had said it would block their applications unless it received satisfactory assurances that they were willing to address what it regards as support for Kurdish groups it designates as terrorist organisations, in particular the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK). However, Ankara tends to treat all Kurdish opposition whether peaceful or militant as terrorism and has taken its ‘war on terror’ into neighbouring Iraq and Syria. Indeed, full arms embargoes were imposed on Turkey by the Czech Republic, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden in 2019 over its military interventions in Syria, but most of these appear to have been discreetly lifted in recent months.

South-eastern Turkey has been the focus of an almost continuous armed confrontation between Turkish security forces and the PKK since 1984, punctuated by occasional ceasefires. The collapse in July 2015 of the Kurdish-Turkish peace process led to a new cycle of violence. Since then, according to the International Crisis Group there have been over 6,000 fatalities caused by this conflict – although the number of people killed since the conflict began in the 1980s is more than 40,000. Rather than address root causes of the conflict, Turkey has been over-reliant on militarised anti-terrorist methods. This has increased regional instability and created new Kurdish grievances. The charge sheet against the Turkish armed forces includes large-scale human rights violations, destruction of livelihoods and infrastructure, mass displacement and the violation of the sovereignty of other countries.

Turkey gets what it wanted

Turkey said it was satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations with Sweden and Finland. “Turkey has made significant gains in the fight against terrorist organisations”, said a statement released by Erdoğan’s office, adding: “Turkey got what it wanted”. The text of the memorandum says that Finland and Sweden will “extend their full support” to Turkey in matters of national security. The document also confirmed that the PKK was a proscribed organisation and, in a key concession, the two Nordic countries would “not provide support” to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) groups that have been active in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

Finland and Sweden affirmed in the agreement that there were no national arms embargoes relating to sales to Turkey and all three countries said they would work together on extradition requests. Sweden is home to 100,000 Kurdish refugees and Turkey has called for the extradition of individuals it says are linked to the PKK or the Syrian YPG.

Questions surrounding the agreement

While the agreement paves the way for a formal invitation to Finland and Sweden at the NATO Summit, many hard questions appear to have been glossed over—about the validity of Turkish security claims, the efficacy of its military-centric approach, and the reputational damage and potential blowback to Sweden, Finland (and indeed NATO) from an actual or perceived weakened commitment to human rights and asylum for political dissidents.

There is also plenty of scope for disagreements about the implementation of the memorandum and further brinkmanship by Erdogan. Among the concrete steps agreed is a commitment for the parties to “establish a joint, structured dialogue and cooperation mechanism at all levels of government, including between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, to enhance cooperation on counter-terrorism, organised crime, and other common challenges as they so decide”. And on the vexed issue of extradition, the agreement says Finland and Sweden will address Turkey’s “pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly, taking into account information, evidence and intelligence provided by Turkiye, and establish necessary bilateral legal frameworks to facilitate extradition and security cooperation with Turkiye, in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition”. How will these bilateral extradition agreements be designed and what will that legislation look like?

The agreement also explicitly integrates the fight against terrorism into Finland and Sweden’s core tasks: “Finland and Sweden will conduct the fight against terrorism with determination, resolve, and in accordance with the provisions of the relevant NATO documents and policies, and will take all required steps to tighten further domestic legislation to this end”. How will this fight against terrorism be conducted and what tools will be used? The US-led, post-Cold War counterterrorism paradigm was fundamentally misguided, and often made the situation worse. Following military defeats in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State shifted its attention to the Sahel, which is now the new epicentre of terrorism that is spreading across sub-Saharan Africa. Yet efforts to contain and prevent this violence continue to overwhelmingly focus on military and intelligence investments. Other, more successful approaches—pioneered by countries like Sweden—are rooted in justice and funding for development programmes aimed at addressing local drivers of the violence, such as lack of adequate water and food, climate change and weak governance.

While there may be a collective sigh of relief within NATO about the trilateral deal, it remains to be seen if the concessions made to Erdogan's authoritarian regime return to haunt the two Nordic countries.