Strongmen in Turkey and Hungary Stall Unity in NATO and the E.U.

BRUSSELS — Europe’s bid to stand up to Russia and Vladimir V. Putin, its president, is being slowed down by two strong leaders who are pushing for the priority of their national interests and playing to domestic audiences.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday blocked a procedural vote on NATO moving ahead quickly with Sweden and Finland’s membership applications filed with much publicity on Wednesday morning, a senior European diplomat said.

And Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban continues to block even a watered-down attempt by the European Union to impose an embargo on Russian oil, part of a sixth package of sanctions against Moscow for its war on Ukraine.

While NATO and the European Union have shown remarkable unity in their response to Putin’s war, the actions of the two authoritarian leaders show tensions as the war continues, peace talks seem to be going nowhere and Western sanctions are adding to the economic crisis. pain and high inflation, both at home and in Russia.

Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Orban may be outliers in their organizations, but they can use the consensus requirement in both NATO and the European Union to allay their political concerns by blocking the action of everyone else, even temporarily.

On Wednesday, a meeting of NATO ambassadors failed to reach a consensus on a first vote to consider the membership requests, as Turkey said it wanted NATO to address its security concerns first. In particular, Ankara wants Finland and especially Sweden to end what Mr Erdogan called support for “terrorist organisations” in their country, mainly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, and to lift export bans on certain arms sales to Turkey.

Turkey’s decision to block the consensus came hours before Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was scheduled to meet with Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken in New York; Turkey wants its security concerns to be allayed before the annual NATO summit at the end of June.

Speaking to lawmakers in parliament on Wednesday, Mr Erdogan extensively criticized Western support for Kurdish groups that Ankara views as a terrorist threat.

“It wouldn’t be wrong to say that we look bitterly at the solidarity and cooperation in the region, the resources used, the weapons opened, the tolerance shown,” he said. “Because, as a NATO ally who struggled with terror for years, whose borders were ravaged, major conflicts unfolding just next door, we have never seen a picture like this.”

Turkey “asked for 30 terrorists,” he said. “They said, ‘We don’t give them,'” Erdogan told parliament. “You are not going to extradite terrorists, but you do want to join NATO. We cannot say yes to a security organization that has no security.”

The PKK is a Kurdish guerrilla group fighting a decades-long separatist insurgency in parts of Turkey. It was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 1997.

Erdogan remains angry over Washington and Stockholm’s support for a PKK-affiliated militia in Syria, where the group fought against Islamic State. His administration last year reprimanded the United States and Sweden over the matter. And Turkey has demanded the extradition of six alleged PKK members from Finland and 11 alleged PKK members from Sweden.

Mr Erdogan has said these problems prevent him from having “favourable thoughts” about the Scandinavian countries’ membership. But he didn’t say he would veto their applications.

On Saturday, Erdogan’s spokesman and foreign policy adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, said: “We are not closing the door. But we are actually raising this issue as a national security issue for Turkey.”

National security is also Mr Orban’s argument. Hungary depends on Russia for its energy, gets 85 percent of its natural gas and 65 percent of its oil supply from Russia, and uses Russian technology for its nuclear power plants.

While Hungary has approved all previous sanctions packages, including an embargo on Russian coal, Mr Orban stated that an oil embargo would be the equivalent of an “atomic bomb” to the Hungarian economy.

But like Mr Erdogan in NATO, this time Mr Orban is the sole mainstay, in his case, in the EU’s weeks-long effort to complete a gradual embargo on Russian oil, the most significant measure in a sixth package of sanctions since the invasion of Ukraine.

Talks started in mid-April. After extensive consultations between EU officials and diplomats from the bloc’s 27 member states, a proposal was tabled in early May with different views.

But Hungary seemed to move the goalposts. The first proposal extended to Hungary and Slovakia so that they could find alternative suppliers. While the remaining 25 EU Member States would have until the end of the year, Hungary and Slovakia would have until the end of 2023.

Then Hungary demanded even more time, and secured it. The latest version of the package would allow it until the end of 2024, but Mr Orban has insisted Hungary would need billions from the bloc to protect his country’s economy. His foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said using other oil and modernizing Hungary’s energy system would cost between €15 billion and €18 billion and would take five years.

Hungary’s blockade of an EU oil embargo, breaking an unprecedented unity in Russia’s punishment, was well received in Moscow. Dmitri Medvedev, the former president of Russia who currently serves as vice-chairman of the country’s national security council, said Mr Orban’s opposition to the oil embargo was “a courageous step for a voiceless Europe”.

In a message on his Telegram channel on May 6, Mr. Medvedev wrote: “Apparently the most sensible leaders of the EU countries are tired of quietly going to the abyss, along with the whole sterilized European herd sent by an American to the slaughter is led. shepherd.”

Diplomats said they expected Orban would eventually agree to an oil embargo after securing both a long extension and additional funding for Hungary, but that he could postpone talks even longer, perhaps until the end of the month when the leaders’ turn. meet in person in Brussels to talk about Ukraine.

NATO officials expressed the same confidence in Mr Erdogan – that he will eventually agree to Sweden and Finland joining NATO in exchange for some concessions that will help him politically at home, with his economy in crisis and new elections on just a year.

Alexander Stubb, a former Finnish prime minister and foreign minister, said that “the Finns are cool and composed and so are the Swedes – this will work.”

Finally, he said: “This is about security in Europe and about strengthening the alliance, and both Finland and Sweden are strong supporters of Turkish membership of the European Union.”

In 1999, he said, it was the Finnish presidency of the European Union that opened the door to Turkish accession, “and our friends in Ankara will remember that.”

Finland’s president Sauli Niinisto said in Stockholm that the Turks “have informed us from many sources that Turkey would not block membership”. A quick process is still possible, he said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Sunday: “Turkey has made it clear: it is not their intention to block membership. Therefore, I am confident that we can address the concerns raised by Turkey in a way that does not delay the accession process.”

At least not too much.

Reporting contributed by Carlotta Gall in Kharkiv, Ukraine; Benjamin Novak in Budapest; and Johanna Lemola in Helsinki.


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