Hungarian hindrance to NATO’s Nordic additions
A few months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Finland and Sweden handed in their letters of application to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). As two countries that largely refrain from military conflict and maintain neutrality, this move signalled a significant shift in their geopolitical intentions.
While NATO signed the accession protocols for these Nordic countries in July 2022, its member countries, also known as Allies, need to ratify the protocols to finalise their accession. Of NATO’s 30 member countries, Hungary and Turkey held off on approving Sweden and Finland’s bid, thereby delaying their admission.
In March 2023, more than ten months after Finland made its application to join NATO, Hungary finally ratified the Nordic country’s NATO membership. However, this came after months of foot-dragging from Budapest, and the Swedish bid still remains unapproved by both the Hungarian and Turkish governments.
The months-long delay in approving Finland’s bid has triggered important questions about Budapest’s intentions. What did it stand to gain from delaying the vote? Was it due to concerns about NATO’s expansion, or did Hungary have a broader strategy?
Hungary’s Diplomatic Agenda
Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has faced criticism from non-governmental organisations, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, that have accused him of threatening the country’s rule of law. Many international watchdogs have brought attention to the rise of corruption and failure of democracy in Budapest.
Notably, political elites from the Nordic countries have been fiercely critical over Budapest’s rule of law and corruption issues, and disapproved of the Hungarian ruling party’s policies. This has led Orban’s Fidesz Party to have reservations about the Nordic countries’ NATO membership. Although Budapest cited a lack of time for lawmakers to vote on the Finnish and Swedish ratification as a reason behind the holdup, their criticism of Hungary cannot be disregarded as a reason for the delay.
Moreover, as a result of corruption charges against Hungary, last year the European Commission sought to freeze funds for the country until it brought about deep reforms to address these shortcomings.
Importantly, Hungary had also intended to use their vote of approval for Finland and Sweden as a leverage to unfreeze funds as Sweden currently holds the European Union (EU) presidency. But, given that the EU and NATO are separate organisations, political experts have questioned Hungary’s desperate attempt to leverage its vote against Sweden and the EU.
What prompted Finland and Sweden to join NATO?
One of the key reasons behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was NATO’s eastward expansion, which threatened the Russian sphere of influence. Ironically, the Russian invasion has played a pivotal role in NATO’s enlargement.
As non-aligned countries, Finland and Sweden faced an immediate threat to their security. They saw NATO membership as a way to ensure that peace continues in the region. Taking advantage of NATO’s open-door-policy, the two countries joined the treaty alliance to bolster its security.
One of NATO’s key objectives is to strengthen the security of North America and Europe. Originally established as a defence against Soviet aggression in 1949, NATO has since expanded to promote transatlantic security by providing member countries with a platform to coordinate on security matters. Within the context of transatlantic security, NATO engages in activities such as intelligence sharing and joint military exercises. In the volatile geopolitical atmosphere of the region, NATO plays a significant role in countering looming threats.
The inclusion of Finland and Sweden increases the length of NATO’s border with Russia, therefore improving NATO’s military capabilities. This will prove useful in deterring Russian aggression along the border. While Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO can create a confrontational environment with respect to Russia, it also provides a framework to improve overall stability in the region.
What is the future for Sweden?
Sweden and Finland made the monumental decision of moving to join the alliance together. However, with Finland’s bid recently gaining approval from both Hungary and Turkey recently, Sweden’s path towards NATO’s open doors remains unclear.
This is mainly because the Swedish bid has faced continued resistance from Turkey, especially over the issue of Kurdish minorities. Sweden seeks to promote human rights and provide refuge to minorities, including Kurds, from abroad. Importantly, the Turkish government claims that Sweden has harboured Kurdish militants. However, Sweden denies the Turkish government’s accusations of harbouring militants within their borders.
Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded that Sweden hand over certain Kurdish separatists who oppose the Turkish government. The Swedes have rejected these demands and have been critical of the Erdogan-led government’s actions. For instance, Sweden has accused Turkey of violating the human rights of Kurds. This has led Ankara to maintain its stance against Sweden, and consequently delay its vote on Sweden's NATO membership.
Moreover, representatives from Sweden have denounced Hungary’s policies and challenged the democratic character of the country’s political structure. As a result of this hostility from Sweden, there has been a protracted delay in ratification from Hungary.
Hungary’s international reputation has been tarnished with many experts referring to the political system as a kleptocracy. Although Hungary was a stable member of the EU and NATO in the past, its unreliableness in the last few months has further maligned its image as an international player.
Unlike Turkey, Hungary has not made any bilateral demands in exchange for their vote to approve Sweden’s bid. Budapest will eventually give the green signal to Sweden, but it will need to make a significant effort to improve its reputation in the international democratic community.
Sameera Pillai is a Bachelor of Journalism and Communications graduate from the University of New South Wales. Her interests include human rights, geopolitics, climate change and sustainability, and gender issues. She is currently working as a Communications Coordinator at a law firm.