Nato’s Jens Stoltenberg poses during a ceremony to mark Sweden’s and Finland’s applications for membership in Brussels
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg hailed the ‘historic moment’ of Sweden and Finland applying for membership to the transatlantic alliance © Johanna Geron/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey has held up Nato’s plans to bring Finland and Sweden into the military alliance, throwing into doubt hopes that the two Nordic countries would swiftly join.

Nato ambassadors met on Wednesday with the aim of opening accession talks on the same day the two countries submitted their applications but Ankara’s opposition stopped a vote, said a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

The move raises doubt that Nato will be able to approve the first stage of Finland’s and Sweden’s applications within one or two weeks, as secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg indicated. It also sets the stage for several days of intense diplomacy between the US, Turkey, Finland and Sweden.

A Turkish official confirmed Ankara had put the brakes on the process, but insisted it was not ruling out the prospect of Sweden and Finland joining.

“We’re not saying they can’t be Nato members,” the official said. “Just that we need to be on the same wavelength, the same page, about the threat that we’re facing.”

The official added: “We want to reach an agreement . . . The sooner we can reach an agreement, the sooner the membership discussions can start.”

All 30 existing members of Nato have to ratify Finland’s and Sweden’s applications but that process only starts once the defence alliance issues an accession protocol and formally invites the two countries to join.

Nato declined to comment, other than to repeat Stoltenberg’s remarks that “the security interest of all allies have to be taken into account [and] we are determined to work through all issues and reach a rapid conclusion”.

US president Joe Biden, who will play host to the leaders of Finland and Sweden at the White House on Thursday to discuss their applications, said he strongly supported the membership bids. He added that he looked forward to “working with the US Congress and our Nato allies to quickly bring Finland and Sweden into the strongest defensive alliance in history”.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has attacked western allies for failing to respect Ankara’s “sensitivity” on terrorism and accused the latest Nato applicants of refusing to extradite 30 people accused of terrorism-related charges in his country.

“We asked for 30 terrorists. They said: ‘We are not giving them’,” he said in a speech to parliament. “You won’t hand over terrorists but you want to join Nato. We cannot say yes to a security organisation that is devoid of security.”

Erdoğan, who has the power to veto the Nordic countries’ admission to Nato, said the alliance’s members should “understand, respect and support” Turkey’s sensitivities about these groups, but added: “None of our allies has shown the respect that we expected to our sensitivity.”

Helsinki and Stockholm’s decision to pursue membership of the alliance, which would redraw Europe’s security map, comes after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a non-Nato member that shares a border with Russia.

Erdoğan’s opposition to their admission casts a shadow over what Nato leaders had sought to cast as a historic moment for the alliance.

“This is a good day at a critical moment for our security,” Stoltenberg said on Wednesday as the Finnish and Swedish ambassadors handed in their requests at a ceremony at Nato’s headquarters in Brussels.

Stoltenberg pledged Nato was “determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions”, adding: “All allies agree on the importance of Nato enlargement. We all agree that we must stand together, and we all agree that this is a historic moment that we all must seize.”

Finland’s president Sauli Niinistö, who will visit Biden together with Sweden’s prime minister Magdalena Andersson, signalled that rapid US ratification could speed up the countries’ membership bids and even help overcome Turkish opposition: “If we have a quick process there, it helps the whole process and timetable.”

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, said he spoke with his Turkish counterpart on Wednesday. US secretary of state Antony Blinken was also due to meet Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu later in New York. “Finland and Sweden are working directly with Turkey to do this, but we’re also talking to the Turks to try to help facilitate,” Sullivan said.

Turkey, a Nato member since 1952, is aggrieved by what it sees as Sweden’s failure to crack down on members of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a militia that has waged an armed struggle against the Turkish state since the 1980s. It has also accused Stockholm of harbouring exiled members of the Gulen movement, a secretive Islamic sect that Ankara blames for a violent coup attempt that rocked Turkey in 2016.

Turkish pro-government newspaper Sabah on Wednesday set out a list of what it said were Ankara’s 10 demands of the Nordic countries. They included a demand to limit contacts with and financing of PKK and its affiliate in Syria, as well as a clampdown on Stockholm-based media linked to the Gulen movement.

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington

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