Hungary and Sweden Agree on Defense Deal Ahead of Final Vote on Sweden's NATO Accession

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) -- The prime ministers of Hungary and Sweden concluded a defense industry agreement on Friday that will expand Budapest's fleet of Swedish-built fighter jets, paving the way for Hungary's likely ratification of Sweden's long-delayed NATO bid.

The meeting in Budapest between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Swedish counterpart, Ulf Kristersson, came after months of heightened tensions between the two countries over Hungary's refusal to give its backing for Sweden to join NATO.

Kristersson made the trip to Hungary after repeated invitations to do so by the Hungarian government, something Orbán had hinted would be a precondition for his government endorsing Sweden's NATO bid.

Friday's defense agreement appeared to be a decisive point of reconciliation between the two governments, and Orbán has indicated that his party is ready to approve Sweden's bid on Monday.

In a news conference following their bilateral meeting, Kristersson said Sweden would sell four Swedish-made JAS 39 Gripen jets to Hungary, expanding its current fleet of 14 jets. Sweden will also extend support systems and service provision for the jets.

"I strongly welcome this deepened cooperation on advanced fighting capabilities," Kristersson said, adding that the Gripen jets are "a pride of Sweden."

Orbán said the additional fighters "will significantly increase our military capabilities and further strengthen our role abroad," and will grow Hungary's ability to participate in joint NATO operations.

The agreement paved the way for Hungary's likely ratification of Sweden's NATO bid on Monday, when a vote on the matter is scheduled in parliament. Unanimous support among all NATO members is required to admit new countries, and Hungary is the last of the alliance's 31 members that has still not given its backing.

During Hungary's more than 18 months of delays in scheduling a vote, Orbán had said his government was in favor of bringing Sweden into NATO, but that lawmakers in his governing Fidesz party were unconvinced -- offended by "blatant lies" from some Swedish politicians that he said had cast doubt on Hungary's democratic credentials.

Hungary's allies in NATO and the European Union had put increasing pressure on Budapest to drop its opposition to Sweden's membership. Last weekend, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators visited Hungary and announced they would submit a joint resolution to Congress condemning alleged democratic backsliding, and urging Orbán's government to immediately lift its block on Sweden's trans-Atlantic integration.

Orbán's critics in the EU have alleged that he has stalled on Sweden's NATO bid to extract concessions from the bloc, which has frozen billions in funding to Hungary over alleged breaches of rule-of-law and democracy standards. The EU has demanded that Budapest take steps to safeguard judicial independence and human rights and tackle corruption.

Hungary's government has railed against Swedish officials that supported freezing the funds, and blamed them for a breakdown in trust between the two countries.

On Friday, Orbán said that while Hungary and Sweden don't agree on all issues, building trust was essential to his country supporting Sweden's joining of the alliance.

"To be a member of NATO together with another country means we are ready to die for each other," he said. "A deal on defense and military capacities helps to reconstruct the trust between the two countries."