The NATO chief projects optimism on Sweden joining, but Turkey’s approval remains far from certain.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, on Thursday projected confidence on Sweden’s bid to join the alliance following a meeting in Brussels with foreign ministers and senior intelligence officials from Turkey, Sweden and Finland.
“We all agreed we have made good progress,” Mr. Stoltenberg told a news conference after the meeting. “We all want to complete this process as soon as possible.”
However, Turkey’s approval remains far from certain. Hungary has been stalling as Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has for months blocked Sweden’s NATO bid.
Mr. Erdogan accuses Sweden of providing a free operating environment to Turkish dissidents whom Turkey considers terrorists. These include members of a religious movement that Turkey has accused of trying to overthrow Mr. Erdogan in 2016 and supporters of a Kurdish militant organization that has fought a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state.
Sweden has made a number of moves to meet NATO requirements and assuage Mr. Erdogan’s concerns. It has amended its Constitution, hardened its counterterrorism laws and agreed to extradite a small number of people to Turkey.
On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto of Hungary told reporters that he was in touch with his Turkish counterpart and that if the Turkish position changed, Hungary would not obstruct the process.
But Mr. Erdogan’s stance has not changed since he won a third term in late May, and he lashed out again at Sweden after a protester publicly burned a Quran at a demonstration in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, last week, accusing Sweden of failing to combat Islamophobia. The act appeared aimed at derailing the NATO talks and was carried out in front of a large mosque on one of Islam’s most important holidays.
After Thursday’s meeting with Mr. Stoltenberg, the Turkish foreign minister, Hakan Fidan, told a televised news conference that the changes Sweden has made to its antiterrorism laws needed to be put into action.
If groups Turkey considers terrorists are free to rally in the streets or use the financial system, Mr. Fidan said, “the legal changes don’t mean anything to Turkey.”
If NATO officials cannot persuade all of the alliance’s leaders to agree to Swedish membership in its two-day annual summit next week in Vilnius, Lithuania, it is unclear what would break the deadlock. NATO officials worry that Swedish membership could linger for months, a symbolic victory for President Vladimir V. Putin and loss for the alliance.
“If there no agreement in Vilnius, then we have crisis in NATO, period,” said Marc Pierini, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and a former European Union ambassador to Turkey.
Mr. Stoltenberg said he would meet with Mr. Erdogan and Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden on Monday, in Vilnius, to try to get Mr. Erdogan’s agreement, with parliamentary ratification to follow.
“Now it is time for Sweden to join the alliance,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “Further delay in Sweden’s membership would be welcomed” by Kurdish terrorists and Mr. Putin.
Mr. Erdogan is set to host President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in Istanbul on Friday. On Thursday, Mr. Zelensky visited Bulgaria, meeting with President Rumen Radev and Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov to discuss defense and energy cooperation. During Mr. Zelensky’s visit, the Bulgarian Parliament approved a declaration of support for Ukraine’s membership to NATO after the end of the war.
Mr. Zelensky also visited Prague on Thursday, meeting with Czech officials, including President Petr Pavel. Mr. Zelensky had previously said they would discuss defense support and Ukraine’s integration to Western organizations, like NATO and the European Union.