Hungarian PM's party backs ratification of Finland, Sweden NATO entry
- Parliament begins ratification process after long delay
- President, government official urge swift ratification
- Expansion will strengthen NATO, government official says
- Orban's party to support ratification -statement
BUDAPEST, March 1 (Reuters) - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party will back the ratification of Finland and Sweden's bid to join NATO, the party's parliamentary group said on Wednesday, as lawmakers began the process after a months-long delay.
The announcement followed calls by Hungary's president and a government official to swiftly endorse expansion of the Western defence alliance in response to Russia's year-old invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.
Sweden and Finland applied last year for membership in the transatlantic military pact after Russian forces swept into Ukraine. But all 30 NATO members must ratify the applications, and Sweden has faced objections from Turkey for harbouring what Ankara considers to be members of terrorist groups.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday talks with Sweden and Finland on their NATO membership bids would resume on March 9, although he said Sweden had still not fulfilled its obligations under a memorandum signed last year.
With Hungary's ratification process stranded in parliament since July, nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban aired concerns about Sweden and Finland's NATO membership for the first time last Friday.
Among other criticisms, Orban has accused both countries of spreading "outright lies" about the quality of democracy and rule of law in Hungary.
While Fidesz lawmakers said bilateral meetings in the two Nordic countries would still go ahead next week, for the first time since Budapest's concerns surfaced, they also made clear they would swing behind their NATO entry.
"We will provide our support to Finland and Sweden's NATO accession," the ruling party, which along with a junior partner controls just over two-thirds of seats in Hungary's parliament, said in a statement.
Opening a general debate of the legislation on Wednesday, both President Katalin Novak and a Foreign Ministry official urged lawmakers to ratify Finland and Sweden's NATO entry "as soon as possible".
Only around a 10th of Hungary's 199 lawmakers attended the opening debate on the process, with a final vote not expected until the second half of March.
"The expansion of NATO to Finland and Sweden is a significant step towards strengthening the security of the euroatlantic region," Foreign Ministry State Secretary Peter Sztaray said, speaking to a nearly empty chamber.
"The countries wishing to join meet all conditions of NATO entry," he said. "Finland and Sweden's NATO membership serves our foreign policy, security and economic interests and it also strengthens NATO."
Speaking to Reuters on the sidelines of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said he hoped the vote would be positive after Hungarian lawmakers meet counterparts in Sweden and Finland.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said on Tuesday Hungary intended to send a parliamentary delegation to Finland on or around March 9 for discussions on Helsinki's NATO bid.
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