Finland still hopes to join NATO together with Sweden, Finland's foreign minister said Monday, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's remarks that Ankara could accept Helsinki's bid without its Nordic neighbour.
"Our strong desire in Finland has been and still is to join NATO together with Sweden," Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told reporters in Helsinki, adding that "our position remains the same."
Ankara has refused to ratify the two countries' NATO membership bids, primarily because of Sweden's refusal to extradite dozens of suspects that Ankara links to outlawed Kurdish fighters and a failed 2016 coup attempt.
Sweden has a bigger Kurdish diaspora than Finland and a more serious dispute with Ankara.
Turkey has also reacted with fury to a decision by the Swedish police to allow a protest at which a far-right extremist burned a copy of the Koran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm earlier this month.
It has been outraged, too, by a Swedish prosecutor's decision not to press charges against a pro-Kurdish group that hung an effigy of Erdogan by its ankles outside Stockholm City Court.
Following those incidents, Ankara last week suspended the two countries' NATO accession talks.
The decision has threatened to derail the bloc's hopes of expanding to 32 countries at a summit planned for July in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
Erdogan has dug in his heels, heading into a tightly contested May 14 election in which he is trying to energise his conservative and nationalist support bases.
On Sunday, he drew a clear distinction between the positions taken by Sweden and Finland in the past few months.
"If necessary, we can give a different response concerning Finland. Sweden will be shocked when we give a different response to Finland," Erdogan said.
'Our closest ally'
But Haavisto, who said he had held talks with his Turkish counterpart following Erdogan's remarks, rejected that option.
"Sweden is our closest ally in defence and foreign policy," he said.
"I still see the NATO summit in Vilnius in July as an important milestone, when I hope that both countries will be accepted as NATO members at the latest."
"President Erdogan's statement proves that there is a positive will in Turkey to advance the NATO process quickly if needed," Haavisto added.
Finland and Sweden dropped decades of military non-alignment and applied to join the US-led defence alliance in May last year in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Finland would prefer to join together-the two nations have a deep and longstanding defence cooperation-but Helsinki is also eager for membership to happen as quickly as possible given its 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) eastern border with Russia.
Finland spent more than a century as part of the Russian Empire until it gained independence in 1917. It was then invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939.
Asked how long Finland could reasonably wait for Sweden, Haavisto replied, "We have patience."
The foreign minister also noted that "so many countries gave us security assurances when we started this NATO" application process, referring to pledges from the United States and Britain, among others, to provide security until the two countries become full members.
All 30 members of NATO must ratify Sweden's and Finland's applications. So far, Turkey and Hungary are the only holdouts.
The Hungarian legislature is expected to approve both bids in February or March.
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