Sweden clears final hurdle to join NATO as Hungary approves accession

Sweden clears final hurdle to join NATO as Hungary approves accession
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

By Krisztina Than and Niklas Pollard

BUDAPEST/STOCKHOLM, Reuters -Hungary's parliament approved Sweden's NATO accession on Monday, clearing the last hurdle before the historic step by the Nordic country whose neutrality lasted through two world wars and the simmering conflict of the Cold War.

Hungary's vote ended months of delays to complete Sweden's security policy shift and followed a visit by Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on Friday, during which the two countries signed an arms deal.

"Sweden is leaving 200 years of neutrality and military non-alignment behind," Kristersson told a press conference.

"We are joining NATO in order to defend what we are and everything we believe in even better. We are defending our freedom, our democracy and our values, together with others."

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government has faced pressure from NATO allies to fall in line and seal Sweden's accession to the alliance.

"We would like to welcome Sweden alongside Finland into the NATO alliance very, very soon," said White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre.

She encouraged Hungary's government to quickly complete the process to allow Sweden's entry into NATO.

"Sweden's membership will make us all stronger and safer," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on X.

Stockholm abandoned its non-alignment policy for greater safety within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

With Sweden following Finland into NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin has in effect achieved the very thing he sought to avert when he launched his war in Ukraine - an expansion of the alliance, Western leaders have said.

"When it comes to Russia, the only thing we can expect is that they will not like that Sweden is becoming a NATO member," Kristersson said. "What they do in addition to that, we cannot know. We are prepared for all sorts of things."

The accession of Sweden, which has not been at war since 1814, and Finland is the most significant expansion of the alliance since it took in members from eastern Europe after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

While Sweden has increased cooperation with NATO in recent decades, contributing to operations in places such as Afghanistan, its membership is set to simplify defence planning and cooperation on the alliance's northern flank.

"NATO gains a member that is serious and capable and it removes a factor of uncertainty in Northern Europe," said Robert Dalsjo, senior analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, a government think tank.

"Sweden gains security in a crowd ... supported by American nuclear deterrence."

Sweden also brings resources such as cutting-edge submarines tailored to Baltic Sea conditions and a sizable fleet of domestically produced Gripen fighter jets into the alliance. It is increasing military spending and should reach NATO's threshold of 2% of GDP this year.

LONG ROAD TO RATIFICATION

Russia's invasion of Ukraine fuelled support in Sweden for joining NATO, especially as neighbouring Finland quickly moved to join.

"It's been a long journey," Josefine Wallbom, 23, a political science student, said in Stockholm. "Me and everyone else was maybe a bit sceptical in the beginning, but now I feel like it's the right decision."

Finland joined NATO last year. Sweden was kept waiting as Turkey and Hungary, which maintain better relations with Russia than other members of the U.S.-led alliance, raised objections.

Turkey delayed ratification of Sweden's membership, demanding tougher action against militants from the Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK) it said had made a home in Sweden.

Sweden changed its laws and relaxed rules over arms sales to assuage Turkey. President Tayyip Erdogan also linked ratification with U.S. approval of sales of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, with Ankara now expecting the United States to work on securing the U.S. Congress' endorsement.

Hungary's foot-dragging was less clear in nature, with Budapest mostly venting its annoyance over Swedish criticism of the direction of democracy under nationalist premier Orban rather than any concrete demands.

The Hungarian ratification, backed by a large majority of lawmakers, will now be signed by the country's speaker of parliament and president within a few days. After that, the remaining formalities, such as depositing accession documentation in Washington, are likely to be concluded swiftly.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than in Budapest, Niklas Pollard, Simon Johnson and Johan Ahlander in Stockholm; additional reporting by Marie Mannes and Tom Little and Jeff Mason; Writing by Niklas Pollard and Krisztina Than; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Ros Russell and Timothy Heritage)