Complicated talks with Turkey have dampened neither the Swedish government's desire nor the desire of the Swedish people to join NATO, that country's Foreign Minister Tobias Billström says.
When it comes to joining the alliance, Sweden also sees contributing to the defense of the Baltic States as one of its priorities, Billström, on an official visit to Estonia Tuesday, continued in an interview with ERR's Epp Ehand, which follows in its entirety.
Epp Ehand: How would you cast the recent events (referring mainly to the Quran-burning incident-ed.) that have delayed talks on your accession to NATO? Your Prime Minister (also in Estonia on an official visit Tuesday-ed.) called their organizers useful idiots; do you think along the same lines?
Tobias Billström: I think we all need to understand that we are living in a very difficult and dangerous security situation in Sweden, as are all the other countries along the Baltic Sea.
Furthermore, globally speaking, we are now in the most dangerous situation since World War Two. In view of all this, the prime minister spoke quite rightly when he described these events as dangerous for Sweden's NATO application, and said that the people responsible bear a great deal of culpability.
We do indeed have freedom of expression in Sweden, but that does not mean that your actions should be exempt from criticism, and this is exactly what the government has done.
Ehand: Don't you think that the rules regarding freedom of expression, or of debate should be changed, as you are trying to gain new allies, while the world remains a difficult and dangerous place?
Billström: No, I don't see such a need at all. This is not the issue. The issue is that we are still outside the NATO family. We will do our utmost to implement the memorandum signed at the NATO Summit in Madrid, between Turkey, Finland and Sweden.
Once this is completed, the Turkish legislature will be able to proceed towards ratification. The longer we stay out of NATO, the greater the risk becomes. We need to be focused and ambitious in our quest for NATO membership, and this is a priority for the Swedish Government.
As for the Quran incident; for example, in Finland this act is illegal, while in many other places it is not. Do you think you should change your laws here?
I don't find it hard to condemn the burning of sacred books, and it is easy for me to understand people's outrage when this happens. At the same time, freedom of expression in Sweden is a right enshrined in the Constitution. While there may be differences in the implementation of this, focusing on the basics, that is, to not deviate from the important values of our Swedish society, is key.
Again I don't think is the main problem; the problem is that we're outside NATO and we need to focus on that, not run around the place engaging in side-shows, rather than the main topic.
The journalist who allegedly paid for the event in Stockholm at which the Quran was burned has previously worked for RT, and is also quite closely associated with [far right populist party] the Sweden Democrats (SD). Do you see the influence of either Russia or the SDE in these events?
I do not want to speculate on this particular person, as this is not up to me as Foreign Minister. However, the SD are currently the largest parliamentary party in the coalition, and they are very clearly in favor of Sweden joining NATO.
There has not been a single contrary opinion on this from them, and they have consistently said that they are behind the memorandum. They have consistently said that they support our actions with regard to Ukraine, and they have never wavered from that. It is important to stress this. This individual may be close to the party, but the party leadership has made its position on the matter very clear.
What is the current situation on the talks with Turkey with regard to its entry into NATO? Have they been postponed or suspended?
The situation is very clear. In the current situation, there is no point in talks at ministerial level; Turkey has clearly signaled this. At the same time, this does not mean that the work on the memorandum has halted. It is not on pause, or stopped, it is ongoing. The work is ongoing at the official level, and it is important to move forward with it.
We believe that we have reached the point where Sweden, along with Finland, has done what we promised to do, that is, we have fulfilled the criteria agreed in the Madrid memorandum. We have been constantly working on this since the Madrid summit last June. And we believe that we are now finished with it, so the Turkish Parliament should start the process of ratification.
Turkey says that not all their wishes have been met, however. Is there anything else on the table, or have you now reached the point where Sweden can no longer move forward?
We have done what we promised to do in the framework of the memorandum, but it must be done in accordance with the Swedish Constitution and legislation. And we've been saying very clearly in public all along that we're going to execute the memorandum, and we're not going to depart from it.
We cannot start expelling people (suspected in Turkey of acts of terror, for instance-ed.), for example; by the way, the memorandum does not mention specific names, that must be clear. We are not going to extradite people from Sweden if this does not comply with our Constitution and laws and the fundamental principles of the rule of law.
Turkey can demand that the memorandum be implemented, and we will comply with it, but we will not go beyond that and we will not do things that do not comply with Swedish law.
Are the Swedes not already fed up with these Turkish demands and blackmail? Isn't there already an attitude emerging that, we are not interested in NATO, if it involves this type of trouble?
There are no signs that the Swedish population has lost interest in NATO membership. On the contrary, since the start of Russian aggression against Ukraine in February, support for joining NATO has risen to unprecedented levels, and remains so. We are talking about a positive attitude of almost 70 percent of the populace towards NATO membership. This guides the government's decisions. We will not change our attitude on the matter.
We are, of course, saddened by the fact that Turkey's domestic developments and elections have impinged on the process, that has to be conceded. The election process is underway [in Turkey] and everything coming from Ankara and the Turkish government must be seen in this light. But this does not change our ambition of becoming a NATO member, and it has not changed the attitude of the Swedish people.
To sum up, we believe that Sweden's security will be bolstered, as well as that of the entire Baltic Sea region, Europe and the whole world, if we join NATO together with Finland.
What would it mean for Sweden if Finland starts to fast track its membership on its own?
First of all, we submitted our applications at the same time, and Sweden and Finland have been saying over the past weeks and months that this is also our way forward. I don't want to speculate more, because it is Finland's business how it holds its own debates, as we do in Sweden.
While Finland's foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, has very clearly stated that Finland and Sweden are the cogs within the security of the Baltic Sea region, it is difficult to prepare defensive plans for this region if neither Finland nor Sweden are part of the NATO family.
When do you think you will become a NATO member state?
It's hard to say, but of course our eyes are on the NATO Vilnius Summit (in X ed.). Elections will take place in Ankara before that date. This saga has clearly become a topic of Turkey's domestic politics, which must be taken into account. By doing our part, we will fulfil the memorandum and we will remain steadfast in our desire to become a member of NATO.
Have you already discussed in Sweden what you are going to do once in NATO, what capabilities you offer and what your priorities are? I've heard differing opinions: On the one hand, where the security of the Baltic States would be a priority for Sweden and Finland, and I've also heard the counterargument to NATO ie., for God's sake, we don't want to go to the aid of the Baltic States if something were to happen there...
The prime minister has very clearly said that we want to have a major presence in the Baltic states, and we are already preparing to participate in the air security mission. We are also talking about participating in the NATO enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battle group(s), which would mean bringing our ground forces to the Baltic States. We have started making plans in which we act as a member of NATO, so that once we do become a member state, then we would immediately be ready to participate on all committees and with all plans. So we look at this in a very positive light.
We believe that we have a special relationship with the Baltic states, for historical, cultural, economic and personal reasons, but above all it stems from the fact that if we and Finland become NATO members, all the countries on the Baltic Sea coast, except Russia, will be NATO countries. This means that we must be interested in the Baltic countries.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mait Ots