The recent compromise engineered by NATO to overcome Turkey’s objections to Finland and Sweden’s accession to the alliance poses a challenge to grassroots efforts to peacefully resolve conflicts in the Middle East. Pro-Kurdish activists demanding democracy and equal rights in Turkey and a negotiated end to Turkey’s 40-year armed conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are already heavily criminalized in Europe. The terms of Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession threaten to embed Turkey’s authoritarian repression further into the fabric of European politics and policing, setting a harmful precedent for peace.
The Trilateral Memorandum
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden declared their intention to join NATO. Driven by legitimate fears of one unpredictable, autocratic regime, they ended up strengthening the hand of another.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spent over a month threatening to block their membership on the grounds that Finland and Sweden were safe havens for Kurdish groups that Turkey sees as terrorists. Just before NATO’s annual summit in Madrid in late June, the three governments reached a compromise. The terms of the deal were outlined in a trilateral memorandum based on NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s proposal for a compromise.
The memorandum outlines a reconsideration of the arms embargo in place since Turkey’s 2019 invasion of Syria, an end to Nordic support for North and East Syria, the possibility of extraditions of Kurdish and Turkish dissidents, and further collaboration on intelligence sharing and monitoring of Kurdish and pro-Kurdish political movements in Finland and Sweden.
Most dangerously, it states that Finland and Sweden must “commit to prevent activities of the PKK and all other terrorist organizations and their extensions, as well as activities by individuals in affiliated and inspired groups or networks linked to these terrorist organizations.” Interpreted broadly—as Turkey likely assumes that it will be—this could mean the targeting of any and all left-wing Kurdish political and civil society organizations, many of which are formally supported by and affiliated with Nordic and European organizations.
Criminalization and its Consequences
This dispute and its resolution have exposed a central goal of Turkish diplomacy: to continue to secure carte blanche from the United States and Europe for a militarized and authoritarian approach to the Kurdish question.
Maintaining a steady flow of arms sales and ending Western sanctions and condemnation are key interests for Turkey in this regard. But Erdogan’s government also has another major interest: preventing democratic processes outside of Turkey from leading to policy outcomes that do not align with Turkey’s goals.
In Europe, where many countries have large Kurdish diaspora communities that are deeply engaged in the politics of both their homelands and their adopted countries, securing this interest requires the promotion of criminalization and political repression.
European NATO member states have obliged Turkey on this matter for decades. In countries like the United Kingdom and Germany, constant fear is a part of everyday life for Kurds and their allies. Raids, arrests, the seizure of assets and digital devices, extraditions and threats of extradition, terrorism charges, and criminal prosecution are all included in the arsenal of counterterrorism policing tactics that target Kurdish communities and pro-Kurdish political movements. In Sweden, Kurdish activists faced surveillance and threats thanks to collaboration between Swedish and Turkish intelligence services well before the NATO accession process began.
Pro-Kurdish movements in Europe typically engage in community organizing, diplomatic lobbying, local party politics, and other legal, democratic processes. The communities they represent came to Europe seeking refuge from war and repression in countries like Turkey and Iraq. Their demands often relate towards steps that would reduce violence and conflict in the Middle East: the resumption of peace talks between the PKK and Turkey, opposition to Turkish military operations in Iraq and Syria, and solidarity with the thousands of Kurdish politicians and activists jailed in Turkey for attempting to address their grievances by peaceful means. Yet despite this, they experience the full force of Europe’s counterterrorism machine simply for expressing their views.
The justification for this repression of marginalized communities and peaceful political activity rests entirely on the alleged security threat posed by the PKK. Turkey uses a variety of diplomatic and legal tactics to demand that European governments view the PKK as terrorist group and, as a result, target non-violent Kurdish political activity on counter-terrorism grounds—just as Erdogan does within his borders.
This allows Turkey to expand its crackdown on Kurds and progressives to the international stage. Collaboration between European and Turkish police forces and intelligence services silences the Kurdish diaspora in Europe and subjects individuals and communities to serious harm and distress. This makes it more difficult for individuals and organizations to express opposition to Western support for Turkey’s violations of human rights and international law at home and abroad, strengthening Turkey’s position.
What happens next?
In their efforts to seek security and stability in a more volatile Europe, Finland and Sweden have strengthened a government that is a major driver of insecurity and instability in the Middle East.
The trilateral memorandum offered international legitimacy to a set of Turkish ‘security concerns’ not shared by any other state and a politicized definition of terrorism broad enough to sweep up any and all political opposition. It will likely embolden Erdogan to make similar demands of other European countries in the future, limiting Europe’s ability to engage constructively on the Kurdish issue and solidifying European complicity in Turkish violations of human rights.
It is also becoming more and more clear that, in order implement the memorandum as Turkey understands it, Sweden and Finland would have to violate their own laws—something leaders in both countries refuse to do. Erdogan has already used the memorandum’s vague language about the consideration of extradition requests to make the unsubstantiated claim that Finland and Sweden had made a binding agreement to extradite several Kurdish and Turkish dissidents. The individuals targeted include people who were offered asylum in Sweden and Finland because their political and human rights were violated in Turkey.
There is no united front against this Turkish pressure campaign against Finnish and Swedish democracy. Many in Finland and Sweden hope that the United States or other NATO members will step in to force Erdogan to back down. Yet it is unclear how much leverage these states have, and many have shown themselves more than willing to appease Turkey for the sake of NATO expansion. Left in limbo, Finland and Sweden must expect further attempts of influence and interference from Turkey.
Yet there are also reasons for optimism. In both Finland and Sweden, Erdogan’s diplomatic blackmail has shifted public opinion against Turkey. There is also increased awareness of the plight of the Kurdish people. The organized pro-Kurdish activists who had previously influenced the Swedish government to engage with Kurdish political and military actors and their demands for peace and democratization remain strong despite threats—and may have even found new allies.
Popular campaigns and legal procedures seeking the removal of the PKK from European terrorism lists continue to make it clear that the criminalization of the Kurdish movement puts the human rights of all Kurds under threat. In Finland, the Left Alliance, which is part of the current coalition government, has recently come out in favor of removing the PKK from the European Union’s terrorism list.
If these cases and campaigns succeed, it will represent a significant diplomatic setback for Turkey—which has spent decades pouring resources into its strategy of criminalization.
Governments will lose their primary justification for the repression of Kurdish activism, allowing activists to work free from political pressure. This could result in democratic processes leading to even more policy outcomes on Turkey and the Kurdish issue that challenge Erdogan’s interests.
Despite these promising signs, however, the concessions to Turkey still represent a blow to efforts to promote democracy and peace in the region. For many Kurds and their allies in Finland and Sweden, the real possibility of extraditions and political repression has made the future of organized political activity uncertain. An unsavory alliance between the Swedish far right and Turkish officials appears to be developing, as both share an interest in targeting the Kurdish diaspora.
All this will also have geopolitical ramifications in the Middle East, at a time when Syrian Kurds are bracing for a potential new Turkish offensive. By demanding that governments prevent legal, civilian advocacy for pro-Kurdish demands and restrict domestic democratic processes that could lead to pro-peace foreign policies, Turkey hopes to isolate Kurdish political and military actors even further and consolidate international support for its military campaigns.