By Anne Kauranen and Humeyra Pamuk
HELSINKI/MADRID (Reuters) – NATO hopefuls Finland and Sweden voiced optimism on Tuesday that Turkey might lift its veto over their stalled bid to join the military alliance at a summit in Madrid, where U.S. President Joe Biden is set to meet his Turkish counterpart.
The White House confirmed Biden will meet Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during the summit that starts later on Tuesday and runs until Thursday, and two NATO diplomats said they expected Washington to seek to break the impasse.
Turkey’s unexpected objections to the two Nordic countries’ membership bid, which if successful would be the biggest shift in European security in decades, threatens to overshadow a summit striving for unity as Russia wages war in Ukraine.
“The general view is that the discussions went somewhat better, which should mean that understanding has somewhat increased on both sides,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told reporters in Helsinki, referring to talks between diplomats.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde went further, telling daily Svenska Dagbladet (SvD): “We are prepared for the eventuality that something positive could happen today, but it might also take longer.”
Erdogan is set to meet NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Swedish Premier Magdalena Andersson and Niinisto at around 1400 GMT in Madrid.
“We hope to make progress,” Stoltenberg said.
Ankara’s main demands are for the Nordic countries to stop supporting Kurdish militant groups present on their territory, and to lift their bans on some sales of arms to Turkey.
Those conditions are now the subject of intense diplomacy as NATO allies try to seal the accession in record time as a way of solidifying their response to Russia, particularly in the Baltic Sea, where Finnish and Swedish membership would give the alliance military superiority.
In the wider Nordic region, Norway, Denmark and the three Baltic states are already NATO members. Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow says is a “special operation”, helped overturn decades of opposition to NATO membership in Sweden.
NO MORE ‘PASSING THE BALL AROUND’
Before leaving for Madrid, Erdogan in Ankara held firm on his stance, saying Turkey wanted action, not words, to address its concerns, adding he will also push Biden on a F-16 fighter jet purchase.
“We want results. We are sick of passing the ball around in the mid-field. As of now, they are producing words,” Erdogan said at the airport.
Erdogan said he had spoken to Biden on Tuesday morning ahead of the planned Madrid meeting and would explain Turkey’s position to allies at the summit and in bilateral meetings.
He said he would discuss with Biden the issue of Ankara’s procurement of S-400 air defence systems from Russia – which lead to U.S. sanctions – and a request to buy 40 F-16 jets and modernisation kits from Washington, as well as other bilateral issues.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said NATO needed to focus more on the “fight against terrorism in all its forms,” which was “also valid for the applicant countries”.
Other allies, including France and Spain, indirectly urged Turkey to yield. Speaking at the Group of Seven summit in Germany, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a message of “unity and of force” from NATO in Madrid.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, standing alongside Stoltenberg, said that there was no option but to let in Finland, which shares a 1,300 km (810-mile) border with Russia, and Sweden.
“We are convinced that, if not now, it will be later, but eventually they will join the Atlantic alliance,” Sanchez told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Andrea Shalal and John Irish in Schloss Elmau in Germany, Simon Johnson in Stockholm, Belen Carreno in Madrid, Writing by Robin Emmott, Editing by Tomasz Janowski)