Erdogan Says Turkey Could Approve Sweden's NATO Membership if Europeans 'Open Way' to Turkey EU Bid

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his country could approve Sweden's membership in NATO if European nations "open the way" to Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

Erdogan, whose country has been holding off its final approval to Sweden's NATO membership, made the comments in Ankara on Monday before departing to the alliance's summit meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania.

"Turkey has been waiting at the door of the European Union for over 50 years now, and almost all of the NATO member countries are now members of the European Union. I am making this call to these countries that have kept Turkey waiting at the gates of the European Union for more than 50 years," Erdogan said.

"Come and open the way for Turkey's membership in the European Union. When you pave the way for Turkey, we'll pave the way for Sweden as we did for Finland," he added.

Turkey is a candidate to join the EU, but its membership bid has been stalled due to Ankara's democratic backsliding and disputes with EU-member Cyprus.

Earlier Monday, Sweden's foreign minister had expressed optimism that Turkey would drop its objections to Swedish NATO membership, saying the Nordic's country's accession is a question of when, not if.

Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson were expected to meet later Monday in Vilnius ahead of the two-day NATO summit.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström told public broadcaster SVT that he expects Turkey will eventually signal that it will let Sweden join the alliance, though he couldn't say whether that would happen at the annual summit.

"What we are counting on, of course, is to reach a point where we get a message back from President Erdogan that there will be what you might call a green light ... a message that the ratification process in the Turkish Parliament can start," Billström said.

Turkey has stalled Sweden's NATO accession, saying it needs to do more to crack down on Kurdish militants and other groups that Ankara considers as threats to its national security. Anti-Turkey and anti-Islam protests in Stockholm raised doubts that an agreement could be reached before the alliance's summit.

Billström said Sweden has fulfilled its part of a tripartite deal that Sweden, Finland and Turkey signed at last year's NATO summit in Madrid.

"We should consider it as a settled question in the sense that it is not a question of if. In connection with the NATO summit in Madrid last year, Turkey already gave Sweden status as an invitee to NATO. It is therefore a question of when," he said.

Billström said he expects Hungary, which also hasn't ratified Sweden's accession, to do so before Turkey.

In a statement, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said that "Finnish -- and soon Swedish -- membership of the alliance is a historic milestone for NATO, the Nordic region and Denmark's security. And there is no doubt that they will strengthen the security of all allies."

Previously non-aligned Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership last year following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Finland joined in April this year.