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Sweden, Finland to submit NATO membership bid Wednesday

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Finland's President Sauli Niinisto, left, and Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson attend a joint news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, May 17. EPA-Yonhap
Finland's President Sauli Niinisto, left, and Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson attend a joint news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, May 17. EPA-Yonhap

Finland and Sweden announced they will submit their bids to join NATO together Wednesday, despite Turkey's threat to block the military alliance's expansion.

"I'm happy we have taken the same path and we can do it together," Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said Tuesday during a joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.

Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) border with Russia, and Sweden have been rattled by Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Their applications will jettison decades of military non-alignment to join the alliance as a defense against feared aggression from Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday warned NATO's expansion may trigger a response from Moscow.

But the main obstacle to Finland and Sweden's membership comes from within the alliance, despite NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg repeatedly insisting the two countries would be welcomed "with open arms".

Turkey has accused Sweden and Finland of acting as a hotbed for terrorist groups and its president insists Ankara will not approve expansion.

Any membership bid must be unanimously approved by NATO's 30 members.

Niinisto said Tuesday he was "optimistic" Finland and Sweden would be able to secure Turkey's support.

And in Washington, State Department Spokesman Ned Price likewise expressed confidence that Ankara would not block their entrance into the alliance.

"We are confident that we will be able to preserve the consensus within the alliance of strong support for a potential application of Finland and Sweden," he said.

Andersson and Niinisto are to meet U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington Thursday to discuss their historic bids.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the bloc offered the bids its "full support" after a meeting of EU defense ministers in Brussels.

"This will increase the number of member states that are also members of NATO. And this will strengthen and increase the cooperation and the security in Europe," he said, noting it was "an important geopolitical change".

Rising public support

After a marathon debate lasting a day and a half, 188 out of 200 Finnish lawmakers voted in favor of NATO membership, a dramatic reversal of Finland's military non-alignment policy dating back more than 75 years.

"Our security environment has fundamentally changed," Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told parliament at the start of the debate.

"The only country that threatens European security, and is now openly waging a war of aggression, is Russia," she said.

Finland spent more than a century as part of the Russian empire until it gained independence in 1917. It was then invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939.

According to public opinion polls, more than three-quarters of Finns want to join the alliance, almost three times as many as before the war in Ukraine began on February 24.

Swedish public support has also risen dramatically, but remains at around 50 percent.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde signed the application letter Tuesday.

The turnaround is also dramatic in Sweden, which remained neutral throughout World War II and has stayed out of military alliances for more than 200 years.

Turkish objections

Ankara has thrown a spanner in the works with its last-minute objections.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Helsinki and Stockholm of harboring militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

Sweden also suspended arms sales to Turkey in 2019 over Ankara's military operation in neighboring Syria.

"We will not say 'yes' to those who apply sanctions to Turkey to join NATO," Erdogan said Monday, adding that "neither of the countries has a clear stance against terror organizations."

Diplomatic sources told AFP that Turkey blocked a NATO declaration Monday in favor of Sweden and Finland's membership.

Sweden and Finland have sent delegations to Turkey to meet with Turkish officials.

"Sweden is delighted to work with Turkey in NATO and this cooperation can be part of our bilateral relations," Sweden's Andersson said, emphasizing that Stockholm "is committed to fighting against all types of terrorism".

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in New York on Wednesday.

"Our assessment of the sentiment among our NATO allies and within the NATO alliance has not changed," said Price, the State Department spokesman. (AFP)




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