Turkey agreed on Monday to clear the way for Sweden to join NATO, a sudden reversal just hours after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the European Union should first advance his country’s bid to join the E.U. bloc.
NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, announced Turkey’s decision from Vilnius, Lithuania, where the alliance was preparing to open its annual summit on Tuesday.
Mr. Stoltenberg said that Mr. Erdogan had lifted his objections to Sweden’s entry into the alliance and would take the country’s bid to his Parliament for ratification as soon as possible.
In return, Sweden and Turkey would continue to work bilaterally against terrorism, Sweden would help reinvigorate Turkey’s application to enter the European Union, and NATO would establish a new “special coordinator for counterterrorism,” he said.
The two countries agreed that “counterterrorism cooperation is a long-term effort, which will continue beyond Sweden’s accession to NATO,” a statement by the alliance said.
“This is good for all of us,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “This is good for Sweden — Sweden will become a full member — and it’s good for Turkey because Turkey is a NATO ally that will benefit from a stronger NATO.”
The statement said Mr. Erdogan met on Monday with Mr. Stoltenberg and Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden to discuss the country’s bid, which had been held up by Turkey’s demands that Sweden crack down on dissidents whom Turkey considers terrorists, including pro-Kurdish activists and members of a religious group that Turkey has accused of planning a coup attempt in 2016.
“This has been a good day for Sweden,” Mr. Kristersson told reporters, saying that the joint statement represented “a very big step” toward the final ratification of Sweden’s membership of NATO.
Hungary is the only other NATO member that has yet to approve Sweden’s bid, but Hungarian officials have said that if Turkey’s position changes, they would not obstruct the process.
President Biden, who arrived in Vilnius on Monday, said in a statement that he welcomed Mr. Erdogan’s commitment to submitting Sweden’s bid for “swift ratification” by the Turkish Parliament.
“I stand ready to work with President Erdogan and Turkey on enhancing defense and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area,” Mr. Biden said. He also thanked Mr. Stoltenberg for his “steadfast leadership” and added that he looked forward to welcoming Mr. Kristersson and Sweden as the alliance’s 32nd member.
Mr. Erdogan’s demand on E.U. membership — a day before the opening of NATO’s two-day summit — appeared to have erected a new obstacle to the admission of Sweden, a major manufacturer of artillery, airplanes and other arms with crucial geographic value allowing control the airspace over the Baltic Sea.
Sweden’s application had been expected to be a central topic at the gathering, where NATO leaders are expected to make a show of their unity and resolve 16 months into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Kyiv, too, has sought to join the alliance — although leaders, including Mr. Biden, have said that will have to wait until the end of the fighting.
Turkey applied to join the European Union in 1987, but there has been scarcely any progress in its bid since 2016, when the European Parliament voted to suspend accession talks while criticizing a vast Turkish government crackdown on political opponents after a failed coup against Mr. Erdogan.
“First, clear the way for Turkey in the European Union, then we will clear the way for Sweden as we did for Finland,” Mr. Erdogan told reporters before traveling to the summit, referring to his country’s decision to drop objections to the application of Finland, which joined the alliance in April.
Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership last year, after Russia’s invasion. At a NATO summit in Madrid last year, officials from Turkey, Sweden and Finland outlined steps that would secure Turkey’s support — a crucial requirement, because all NATO nations must agree to admit new members.
In recent months, Sweden made efforts to meet Turkey’s demands, amending its Constitution, passing new counterterrorism legislation and agreeing to extradite several Turks who stand accused of crimes in Turkey. But Swedish courts have blocked other extraditions, and Swedish officials have said that they cannot override their country’s free-speech protections.
Mr. Erdogan continued to say that Sweden must do more.
A new complication arose last month, after a man publicly burned a Quran at a protest in Stockholm on a major Muslim holiday Mr. Erdogan criticized Sweden for permitting the protest and said that the Swedish authorities needed to fight Islamophobia, even though that had not been among the issues Sweden had agreed with Turkey to address.
But the breakthrough on the eve of the summit could mean that Sweden might join the alliance in short order. Turkey’s Parliament is in session until July 27, and the body needed just two weeks to approve Finland’s bid after Mr. Erdogan agreed to support it in March.
Ben Hubbard reported from Istanbul, and Lara Jakes and Steven Erlanger from Vilnius, Lithuania. Gulsin Harman contributed reporting form Istanbul, and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.