Sweden and Hungary move to smooth over tensions ahead of vote on Sweden's NATO accession

FILE - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for an annual international press conference in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. Nearly two years after Sweden formally applied to join NATO, its membership now hinges on convincing one country, Viktor Orbn's Hungary to formally ratify its bid to join the military alliance. (AP Photo/Denes Erdos, File) (Denes Erdos, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

BUDAPEST – Nearly two years after Sweden formally applied to join NATO, its membership now hinges on convincing one country — Viktor Orbán’s Hungary — to formally ratify its bid to join the military alliance.

Hungary’s nationalist government has delayed holding a vote on Sweden’s membership for more than 18 months, creating tension with Stockholm and drawing mounting pressure from its allies to finally move forward on ratification.

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Yet Orbán’s party this week announced it will vote on ratifying Sweden’s NATO bid on Monday, suggesting the delays — and the diplomatic tensions — could be drawing to a close. While neither Hungarian nor Swedish officials have specified what led to Hungary dropping its objections, there are indications that the two countries are closing in on an agreement for Hungary to acquire Swedish-built military equipment.

Jens Wenzel, a Sweden-based defense analyst with Nordic Defence Analysis, a consultancy, said that Hungary’s delays in ratifying Sweden’s NATO bid has in part been a form of pressure on Stockholm “to come up with some kind of needed equipment acquisition deals” for the Hungarian military.

“Sweden has a very strong defense industry, and there is probably an interest from Hungary to acquire some of that defense material,” he said. “Viktor Orbán wants to gain the maximum out of utilizing this delay just before we close the (ratification) deal on Monday, so deals probably could be struck with Sweden in terms of arms supplies.”

All of NATO’s 31 other member countries have lent their support to Sweden’s membership, and speculation on the reasons for Hungary’s enduring resistance has abounded.

Orbán says his government is in favor of bringing Sweden into NATO, but that lawmakers in the prime minister’s governing Fidesz party remain unconvinced — offended by “blatant lies” from some Swedish politicians that he says have excoriated the quality of Hungary’s democracy.

As for specific demands from Orbán’s government on how Sweden should mend the hurt feelings, few have been forthcoming. But Wenzel, the defense analyst, said there is interest in Hungary in acquiring, among other equipment, Swedish-built Gripen fighter jets.

Hungary currently leases 14 JAS 39 Gripen jets from Stockholm, and has expressed its intention to expand the fleet. Since 2022, high-ranking defense officials have indicated that Hungary was planning to add four new Gripen jets to its arsenal.

Speaking in Poland on Monday, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said the jets would be among the topics of conversation when he visits Budapest on Friday for negotiations with Orbán.

“It is no secret that we discuss how we can develop our cooperation concerning the JAS 39 Gripen fighter jet system, which both Sweden and Hungary use. We will continue to discuss this when we meet,” Kristersson said.

“We will announce whether this means a new deal,” he added.

Sámuel Ágoston Mráz, director of the Orbán-allied Nezopont Intezet think tank, said that Hungary dropping its objections stems from Sweden’s willingness to further develop its political and economic cooperation with Budapest, which could include expanding the two countries’ military relationship.

“We will know the details of the military and economic cooperation (after the prime ministers’ meeting) on Friday, but it will certainly not be insignificant,” he said.

Hungary using its vote on Sweden’s NATO accession to leverage a deal on procuring military equipment would not be without precedent. Turkey, which ratified Sweden’s bid in January, made its support for Stockholm’s membership contingent on the approval of the sale of F-16 fighter jets from the United States.

Hours after Turkey’s ratification, the Biden administration announced its approval of the $23 billion sale.

Orbán’s critics in the European Union have alleged that he has stalled on Sweden’s NATO bid to extract concessions from the bloc. The EU has frozen billions in funding to Hungary over alleged breaches of rule-of-law and democracy standards, and 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.

Mráz, the think tank director, said many of Orbán’s voters are “angry” at Sweden for helping to block the EU funds, and that the government’s reluctance to ratify its NATO accession has been a gesture to Orbán’s conservative base.

“They expect that in the case of Sweden, Hungary should demand the respect it deserves and do everything it can so that Sweden does not abuse its position and obstruct EU funds or any other foreign policy ambitions of Hungary,” he said.

“Hungary has proven its sovereignty and shown that it is impossible to influence its behavior by raising eyebrows and making loud criticisms,” he added.


Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark contributed to this story.

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