Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson met in Madrid on June 28 under the auspices of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. In that meeting the leaders agreed to a trilateral memorandum of understanding (MOU) to address Turkey’s security concerns, paving the way for Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership.
Thanks to the signed memorandum, NATO issued a formal invitation to Finland and Sweden to join the alliance. The overcoming of a major crisis concerning the membership of Sweden and Finland before the declaration of the Strategic Concept document, which will guide NATO’s activities until 2030, was welcomed by NATO. The MOU was presented as a victory by the Turkish media. But who actually benefited from the signing of the trilateral MOU? Why did Erdoğan, who originally took a hard stance against the NATO membership of the two countries, make a last-minute U-turn or be forced to do so?
First of all, the MOU is a declaration of good will in the sense of international law. It is not binding on the signatories. The parties may contravene the articles of the MOU by invoking the provisions of their national laws or other international agreements to which they are signatories. In other words, memorandums of understanding are accepted only as symbols of diplomatic reconciliation between states. In this regard, Sweden and Finland benefited from coming to an agreement with Turkey, signing a text that does not bind them under international law and removing a veto that blocked their applications for membership in NATO.
Another beneficiary of the reconciliation among Turkey, Sweden and Finland is NATO, sending a strong message to the world against Russia and China in unity and solidarity, proclaiming its new Strategic Concept. Had there been no agreement by Turkey, Sweden and Finland, the Strategic Concept would have been overshadowed by discussions of unity and solidarity within NATO.
A telephone conversation between US President Joe Biden and Erdoğan prior to the signing of the memorandum of understanding had an undeniable impact on reaching an agreement among the parties. In this regard, the US has shown that it has the means to persuade the Erdoğan government whenever it wants. To put it more bluntly: Biden convinced Erdoğan to compromise with Sweden and Finland in exchange for a bilateral meeting with him and by expressing support for the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.
One of Turkey’s main goals before the negotiations was to get Sweden and Finland to recognize the People’s Protection Units (YPG)/Democratic Union Party (PYD) as a terrorist organization. Turkey’s attitude towards the YPG/PYD was: “The YPG/PYD is a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] terrorist organization operating in Syria. It is not a structure independent of the PKK in terms of its purpose and command structure.” However, in analyzing the text of the memorandum, one finds that it falls far short of Ankara’s expectations regarding the groups it defines as terrorist organizations. While the YPG/PYD is not designated as a terrorist organization in the fourth article of the memorandum, the fifth article confirms that the PKK is a proscribed terrorist organization. Article 8, which enumerates specific measures under the memorandum, does not directly refer to the YPG/PYD. For Turkey, signing a memorandum that does not explicitly recognize the YPG/PYD as a terrorist organization can be considered a loss, depending on where Turkey stood before the negotiations.
The only concrete benefit to Turkey in the MOU is the lifting of arms embargoes, as stated in Article 7: “Turkey, Finland and Sweden confirm that there are no national arms embargoes in place between them.”
Article 8 also says: “Finland and Sweden commit to support the fullest possible involvement of Turkiye and other non-EU Allies in the existing and prospective initiatives of the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy, including Turkiye’s participation in the PESCO Project on Military Mobility.” Although the issue of PESCO is seen as an achievement in Article 8, it does not mean a gain for Turkey in reality.
Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) is the component of the European Union’s Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in which 25 of the 27 national armed forces pursue structural integration. A non-EU country must be invited to participate in individual PESCO projects. This can only happen with a decision by consensus of the European Council. In order for Turkey to participate in PESCO projects, it must first convince Greece and Cyprus. Thus, Sweden and Finland’s support for participation in the PESCO projects doesn’t have much meaning as long as Turkey cannot improve its relations with Greece and Cyprus.
Sweden’s lifting of the arms embargo on Turkey could facilitate Sweden’s cooperation with Turkey on the TF-X project, a fifth-generation fighter jet to be produced with national funds that has become uncertain because of problems in the supply of aircraft engines. Turkey could become involved in the Tempest project to transfer the engines and technology it needs to produce the TF-X aircraft. (Tempest is a joint project between Sweden and the United Kingdom to produce a sixth-generation fighter aircraft. It is being developed under the Future Combat Air System (UK) program by a consortium known as Team Tempest, which includes the Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo S.p.A., MBDA and Saab.)
In general, we cannot say that the text of the MOU meets Turkey’s expectations.
However, Erdoğan returned to Turkey with a text with which he could easily write a success story to win the political support of the Turkish people. The bilateral meeting with US President Biden and Biden’s statement of support for the F-16 sale were credited to Erdoğan as political gains. In the long term, Turkey has lost much of its international prestige and credibility by pursuing an unpredictable foreign policy, while in the short term Erdoğan has gained another tool that he can easily exploit for his future in domestic politics.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.