Sweden clears final hurdle to join NATO as Hungary approves accession

By Reuters - February 26, 2024
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Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban hold a joint press conference in Budapest, Hungary, February 23, 2024. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Budapest/Stockholm, Reuters – Hungary’s parliament approved Sweden‘s NATO accession on Monday, clearing the last hurdle before the historic step by the Nordic country whose neutrality lasted through two world wars and the simmering conflict of the Cold War.

Hungary’s vote ended months of delays to complete Sweden‘s security policy shift and followed a visit by Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on Friday during which the two countries signed an arms deal.

“Today is a historic day,” Kristersson said on X. “Sweden stands ready to shoulder its responsibility for Euro-Atlantic security.”

Sweden‘s NATO membership was supported by 188 lawmakers in Hungarian parliament, with 6 against and no abstentions.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has faced pressure from NATO allies to fall in line and seal Sweden‘s accession to the alliance.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg immediately welcomed Hungary’s ratification. “Sweden‘s membership will make us all stronger and safer,” he said on X.

Stockholm abandoned its non-alignment policy for greater safety within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

With Sweden following Finland into NATO, President Vladimir Putin has effectively achieved the very thing he sought to avert when he launched his war in Ukraine – an expansion of the alliance, Western leaders have said.

While Finland became a NATO member last year, Sweden was kept waiting as Turkey and Hungary, which both maintain better relations with Russia than other members of the U.S.-led alliance, raised objections.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses the parliament in Budapest, Hungary, February 26, 2024. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

LONG ROAD TO RATIFICATION

Turkey withheld ratification on Sweden‘s membership demanding tougher action against militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) it said had made a home in Sweden.

Sweden changed its laws and relaxed rules over arms sales to assuage Turkey. President Tayyip Erdogan also linked ratification with U.S. approval of sales of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, with Ankara now expecting the United States to work on securing the U.S. Congress’ endorsement.

Hungary’s foot-dragging was less clear in nature with Budapest mostly venting its annoyance over Swedish criticism of the direction of democratic development under nationalist premier Orban rather than any concrete demands.

Orban – who has refused to send weapons to neighbouring Ukraine and repeatedly criticised Western sanctions against Russia – on Monday again urged a ceasefire in Ukraine.

The accession of Sweden, which has not been at war since 1814, and Finland is the most significant expansion of the alliance since its move into Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

While Sweden has ramped up cooperation with the alliance in recent decades, contributing to operations in places such as Afghanistan, its membership is set to simplify defence planning and cooperation on NATO’s northern flank.

“NATO gains a member that is serious and capable and it removes a factor of uncertainty in Northern Europe,” said Robert Dalsjo, senior analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, a government think tank.

Sweden gains security in a crowd … supported by American nuclear deterrence.”

Sweden also brings resources such as cutting-edge submarines tailored to Baltic Sea conditions and a sizable fleet of domestically produced Gripen fighter jets into the alliance. It is hiking military spending and should reach NATO’s threshold of 2% of GDP this year.

The ratification will now be signed by the speaker of parliament and Hungary’s president within a few days, after which the remaining formalities, such as depositing accession documentation in Washington, are likely to be concluded swiftly.

 

(Reporting by Krisztina Than in Budapest, Niklas Pollard, Simon Johnson and Johan Ahlander in Stockholm; additional reporting by Marie Mannes and Tom Little; Writing by Niklas Pollard and Krisztina Than; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Ros Russell)