Sweden, U.S. voice hope for NATO enlargement by July

EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum

By Niklas Pollard and Humeyra Pamuk

STOCKHOLM/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Sweden still hopes to be a member of NATO by the time of the alliance's summit in Vilnius in July, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said on Friday, an anticipation echoed by a senior Biden administration official in Washington.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine convinced Sweden and Finland last year to ditch long-held policies of military non-alignment and seek security of NATO's collective defence commitment.

Finland joined NATO last month, but Sweden's membership has been held up by objections from Turkey and Hungary.

"There isn't going to be any plan B or anything like that. Plan B is plan A - that is full membership in NATO and that is what I and the government are going to work for all the way to Vilnius," he told reporters.

The U.S. State Department's acting top diplomat for Europe also voiced hope that Sweden would be a member of the alliance by July 11-12, when the NATO leaders summit is set to take place in the Lithuanian capital.

"We have had extensive conversations with the Turkish government about allies’ - including ours - clear conviction that Sweden is ready for membership now," Acting Assistant Secretary Dereck Hogan told reporters.

"We do very much look forward to seeing both Turkey as well as Hungary ratify Sweden's accession protocols very soon, prior to the summit in Vilnius," Hogan said, adding that Washington and others would be discussing it with the new Turkish government following Sunday's second round of presidential elections there.

Turks go to the ballot boxes on Sunday for the runoff of a tight presidential race, with incumbent Tayyip Erdogan leading after the first round on May 14.

Hogan's optimism is also in stark contrast with Erdogan's comments from a CNN International interview last week during which he said Turkey was not ready for Sweden's membership right now.

Despite that, Sweden's Billstrom said he hoped Turkey's parliament would begin the ratification process after the dust has settled. "It is time for Turkey to start its ratification process and uphold its part of the bargain," Billstrom said.

Sweden and Finland struck a three-way deal in Madrid in June last year aimed at addressing Turkey's security worries.

But Turkey has been dragging its feet over Sweden, saying Stockholm harbours members of militant groups it considers to be terrorists.

Hungary has also objected to Sweden's application citing grievances over Swedish criticism of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's record on democracy and the rule of law.

Billstrom said it was unclear what objections Budapest had to Sweden's membership.

"Hungary gave its support at the summit in Madrid last year for Sweden to be given invitee status without any conditions," he said. "It is our firm opinion that they should start ratification."

(Reporting by Niklas Pollard abd Simon Johnson in Stockholm; Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis in Washington, editing by Anna Ringstrom and Alistair Bell)