Finland says must consider joining NATO without Sweden

In this file photo taken on November 30, 2022 Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto arrives for the meeting of the NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Bucharest, Romania. Photo by Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP

Helsinki, Finland -- Finland said for the first time Tuesday that it had to consider joining NATO without Sweden, whose bid appeared to grind to a halt as Ankara blasted Stockholm over anti-Turkey protests.

"We have to assess the situation, whether something has happened that in the longer term would prevent Sweden from going ahead," Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told broadcaster Yle.

He added that it was "too early to take a position on that now" and that a joint application remained the "first option".

Sweden's Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom told media on Tuesday that he was "in contact with Finland to find out what this really means".

The Danish-Swedish far-right politician Rasmus Paludan set fire to a copy of the Muslim holy book on Saturday in front of Turkey's embassy in the Swedish capital, angering Ankara and Muslim countries around the world.

"Sweden should not expect support from us for NATO," Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday in his first official response to the act.

"It is clear that those who caused such a disgrace in front of our country's embassy can no longer expect any benevolence from us regarding their application for NATO membership," Erdogan said.

Swedish leaders have roundly condemned the Koran burning but defended their country's broad definition of free speech.

"I want to express my sympathy for all Muslims who are offended by what has happened in Stockholm today," Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson tweeted on Saturday.

The incident came just weeks after a support group for armed Kurdish groups in Syria, the Rojava Committee, hung an effigy of Erdogan by the ankles in front of Stockholm City Hall, sparking outrage in Ankara.

Haavisto said the anti-Turkey protests had "clearly put a brake on the progress" of the applications by Finland and Sweden to join the trans-Atlantic military alliance.

"My own assessment is that there will be a delay, which will certainly last until the Turkish elections in mid-May", Haavisto said.

- 'Plan B' out in the open -

Turkey has indicated in recent months that it has no major objections to Finland's entry into NATO.

Finland had refused until now to speculate on the option of joining without Sweden, emphasising the benefits of joint membership with its close neighbour.

But "frustration has grown in various corners of Helsinki", and "for the first time it was said out loud that there are other possibilities", Matti Pesu, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told AFP.

"There has been a change" in the Finnish position, he said. "These Plan Bs are being said out loud."

Haavisto also accused the protesters of "playing with the security of Finland and Sweden", with actions that "are clearly intended to provoke Turkey".

"We are on a very dangerous path because the protests are clearly delaying Turkey's willingness and ability to get this matter through parliament," he said.

Pesu noted that while Turkey had so far given no indication it would treat the two applications "separately", it will be "interesting to see how Turkey reacts" to Haavisto's comments.

Sweden and Finland last year applied to become members of NATO after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ending decades-long policies of military non-alignment.

Their NATO bids must be ratified by all members of the alliance, of which Turkey is a member.

Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding with the two Nordic countries at the end of June, paving the way for the membership process to begin.

But Ankara says its demands remain unfulfilled, in particular for the extradition of Turkish citizens that Turkey wants to prosecute for "terrorism".

© Agence France-Presse

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