WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden welcomed Sweden’s prime minister to the White House on Wednesday in a show of solidarity as the United States ramps up pressure for the Nordic nation’s entry into NATO ahead of the alliance’s summit next week.
Biden said it was very important for Sweden to join, something that’s been held up by objections from Turkey and Hungary. NATO requires the unanimous approval of all members to expand.
“You are a valued, valued friend,” the president said to Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson during brief public remarks in the Oval Office.
Kristersson responded by saying that “we highly appreciate your strong support” for joining NATO.
The two leaders were also expected to discuss security cooperation, Russia’s war in Ukraine and matters involving China during their private meeting.
Sweden and neighbor Finland ended their longstanding policy of military nonalignment after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Both applied for NATO membership, seeking protection under the organization’s security umbrella.
Finland, which shares a more than 800-mile or 1,300-kilometer, border with Russia, joined NATO in April. But Sweden, which has avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, has been delayed.
NATO had hoped the road to Sweden’s membership would be smoothed out before the alliance’s summit July 11-12 in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Sweden’s entry would be a symbolically powerful moment and the latest indication that Russia’s war is driving countries to join the alliance. Those hopes have dimmed.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has resisted, with his government accusing Sweden of being too lenient toward groups that it says pose a security threat, including militant Kurdish organizations and people associated with a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.
Last week, he criticized Sweden over a Quran-burning protest. Swedish police allowed the protest outside a mosque in central Stockholm, citing freedom of speech after a court overturned a ban on a similar Quran-burning.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he would gather senior officials from Turkey, Sweden and Finland on Thursday to try to overcome Turkey’s objections.
Hungary also has yet to ratify Sweden’s bid. Hungarian lawmakers said a long-delayed parliamentary vote on that would not happen until the autumn legislative session.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has alleged that Swedish politicians have told “blatant lies” about the condition of Hungary’s democracy. High-ranking Hungarian officials have said they support Sweden’s membership bid while also making vague demands from Stockholm as conditions for approval.
Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican who is heading to Vilnius next week with a bipartisan U.S. delegation, said he was optimistic that Turkey would eventually accede to Sweden’s admission and, once that occurs, Hungary would relent as well.
“I don’t think there’s any outstanding request that Turkey has made that Sweden hasn’t fulfilled,” Tillis said.