BALKAN BLOG: Slovenia takes over EU presidency amid squabbles with Brussels

BALKAN BLOG: Slovenia takes over EU presidency amid squabbles with Brussels
Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa (left) with European Parliament president David Sassoli as Slovenian prepares to take over the EU Council presidency.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje June 28, 2021

Slovenia faces pressing issues such as the post-COVID-19 recovery and the stalled EU enlargement process as it takes over the six-month EU Council presidency from Portugal on July 1. Yet Ljubljana’s ability to provide leadership to the bloc at this critical point is constrained by squabbles with Brussels as the action of Prime Minister Janez Jansa’s right-wing government are increasingly at odds with the EU’s core values. 

Recent disputes have centred on issues such as media freedom in the country and the appointment of Slovenia’s European prosecutors, and Jansa also reportedly backed Hungarian PM Viktor Orban in his recent spat with Brussels over Budapest’s anti-LGBT regulation

Four priority areas

The Slovenian presidency is the second since the country became an EU member in 2004, after Slovenia took the helm of the EU Council with its first presidency in January-June 2008. Even though the presidency is mostly a bureaucratic business, it helps set the common agenda of the EU bloc, the home of nearly 450mn people. Slovenia will again work together in a trio with Germany, which held the presidency in the second half of 2020, and Portugal, which followed in the first half of 2021.

Aside from the coronacrisis, other pressing issues during the Slovenian EU presidency include the implementation of the green and digital agendas as well as revival of the stalled EU enlargement process with the Western Balkans countries, after Bulgaria reaffirmed its veto on the launch of EU accession talks with North Macedonia, which also blocks Albania's progress.

The Slovenian government, which adopted the programme for EU presidency on June 2, said that at the helm of the EU, it will focus on four priority areas — post-pandemic recovery, the Conference on the Future of Europe, rule of law and security.

One of Slovenia’s main priorities is to strengthen the EU’s resilience to potential pandemics and other health threats European citizens may face in the future. Increased digitalisation, combined with the uncertainty triggered by the pandemic, have pointed to the need to strengthen resilience to large-scale cyber attacks.

Slovenia will strive towards enhancing the EU’s strategic autonomy and reducing dependence on external actors. 

The post-pandemic economic recovery will be the main task of the EU in the near future. As Slovenia takes over the EU Council presidency, it will advocate for effective implementation of the Next Generation EU instrument and the Recovery and Resilience Mechanism and to ensure the rapid adoption of national recovery and resilience plans in the Council. The green transition and digital transformation will also play a key role. 

Most of the events within the Conference on the Future of Europe, a citizen-led series of debates and discussions to enable EU citizens to share their ideas and help shape the union’s future, will take place during the Slovenian presidency.

In the next six months, Slovenia will lead debates aimed at strengthening the rule of law as a common European value and strive to preserve the European way of life, the government has said.

Special attention will be devoted to the Western Balkans, especially to continuing the EU enlargement process and enhancing the European perspective of the region. To this end, a meeting of EU and Western Balkans leaders will be held in Slovenia on October 6.

Ahead of the Slovenian EU presidency, Slovenian Foreign Minister Anze Logar was cited by Euractiv as saying that the EU needs to move “as soon as possible” from a wait-and-see approach to a problem-solving strategy in dealing with enlargement and the Western Balkans.

“In recent years, the strategy of the EU towards the Western Balkan was a wait-and-see-approach, with the bloc not being too active in the region vis a vis reform stalemate,” Logar said, acknowledging that in the past decade, enlargement “has fallen off the EU’s agenda”.

At odds with the EU

Just over a month before the takeover, Slovenia was facing a political crisis with an impeachment motion against Jansa filed by opposition parties.

The opposition accused Jansa of breaking laws and trampling on the country's democratic foundations, including through pressure on the media and suspension of news agency STA's financing. However, the motion was narrowly rejected.

Jansa called the motion another “pathetic move” aimed at discrediting the government during the pandemic, but while he survived the impeachment, the dissatisfaction in Brussels with some Slovenia’s political moves remains.

In the latest squabble, Slovenia failed to appoint two European delegated prosecutors (EDPs), which also led to the resignation of justice minister Lilijana Kozlovic, who proposed the rejected candidates.

She was later replaced by Marjan Dikaucic, an official receiver. Jansa’s government annulled the procedure to appoint its representative in the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) at the end of May and decided to publish a new call for applications.

The EU's new public prosecutor Laura Kovesi joined MEPs in voicing concern about Slovenia’s commitment to appoint its two EDPs.

In a statement on June 8 Kovesi said that the EPPO can start operations without the Slovenian EDPs (which happened on June 1), but that this means that the level of protection of the financial interests of the EU will decrease in Slovenia.

“The manifest lack of sincere cooperation of the Slovenian authorities with the EPPO seriously undermines the trust in the effective functioning of the management and control systems for EU funds in Slovenia,” Kovesi said.

The prosecutor’s office is important as according to the EU, the appointment of its first ever dedicated chief prosecutor underlines its determination to fight cross-border VAT fraud and crime that total over €10bn each year.

Meanwhile, an increase in pressure on Slovenia’s media has been reported since Jansa’s government came to power in early 2020. Jansa is well known as a Twitter fan, and his supporters often use social media networks to criticise journalists and the media. 

Concerns over media freedom

The Jansa government has been under EU scrutiny over the situation with the media, and in that regard has often been compared with Poland and Hungary which have been also accused of undermining critical media and promoting conspiracy theories.

Jansa’s critics call him ‘mini-Orban’ or ‘Marshall Tweeto’, referring to his close links with authoritarian Hungarian PM Orban and Jansa's obsession with tweets.

On June 13, STA reported that Igor Krsinar, a journalist for the right-wing political magazine Reporter, had initiated a private prosecution against Jansa over two Twitter posts in 2019 that implied he was a drug user. In one tweet, in October 2019, Jansa said about an article that Krsinar wrote: "Pure lie. Apparently Krsinar is using heavy drugs."

In March, during a debate in the European Parliament on media in Poland, Hungary and Slovenia, European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova spoke of continuous attempts by the Slovenian government to undermine the sustainable funding and the independence of the STA news agency, and noted that frequent verbal attacks against journalists in the country were a cause for concern.

Media freedom organisations have also sought to focus the EU’s attention on the situation in Slovenia. Six organisations sent a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on March 16, describing the “repeated denigration” of journalists and the ruling party’s attempts to exert greater control over the public service media, that together “are creating an increasingly hostile climate for critical reporting which serves its fundamental role of holding the government to account”.

Two MEPs from the Greens-European Free Alliance, Daniel Freund and Sergey Lagodinsky, conducted a three-day mission to Slovenia before the start of the Slovenian EU presidency. They expressed concern over the situation in Slovenia describing it as “very complex”.

Lagodinsky was cited by STA as saying that Slovenia should act professionally and distance itself from illiberal countries such as Hungary.

“I have the feeling that the rule of law still functions in Slovenia, it’s not as bad as in Hungary or Poland,” the MEP said. However, he also talked of a pattern of repeated attacks by the ruling Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) and the government on the rule of law, fundamental rights and the media. 

Freund said that the “situation in Slovenia is at least as concerning as I had thought”. While there are countries in the EU where freedom of the press and independence of the judiciary were in a worse position, what was problematic in Slovenia was the direction in which it is going and the pace of deterioration.

Slovenia is not the first country among the newer EU members to take over the EU Council presidency at a time when they are at odds with the EU; the current situation echoes those when first Czechia and later Romania took the EU helm.

The Czech presidency took place in the first half of 2009. Following the successful and highly praised French presidency in the second half of 2008, many raised serious doubts about the ability of the Czech Republic to take the helm of the EU in the time of global financial and economic crisis given then president Vaclav Klaus’ euro-skepticism.

A decade later, Romania took over the presidency of the EU Council in January 2019, at a time when the anti-European discourse from the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) had intensified, and Bucharest was increasingly in conflict with the European Commission over the controversial overhaul of criminal and justice legislation that had also sparked mass protests in the country. 

Preparation underway

Despite this controversy, Slovenia has been actively preparing to take over the presidency. 

On June 16, authorities inaugurated the new passenger terminal at Ljubljana Joze Pucnik Airport with expansion of 10,000 square metres and also increased the number of flights to Brussels during the presidency.

"We are counting on the airport to serve not only tourism but the Slovenian economy and state in general, both in the coming months when Slovenia chairs the EU Council (from July 1) and in the coming years when travel is restored, restrictions lifted and the epidemic hopefully becomes a thing of the past," Jansa said.

Participants of the events hosted by the Slovenian EU presidency may look forward to a number of protocol gifts, including, cufflinks with a panther motif and smart water bottles, as well as facsimiles of France Preseren's poem Zdravljica, which is also the Slovenian anthem.

A month before the beginning of the Slovenian presidency the country revealed its presidency's logo and slogan. The visual identity of the Slovenian Presidency reflects its guiding principle, priorities and objectives under the slogan "Together. Resilient. Europe." The slogan was selected as a response to the challenges faced by the EU and its future development. 

However, there was further controversy about the art exhibition to be put up at the European Parliament during Slovenia's EU presidency. This will now go ahead, after being cancelled previously — reportedly because of Ljubljana’s objections to the presence of artworks from the European Parliament’s permanent collection by artist and government critic Arjan Pregl. The exhibition usually showcase arts pieces provided by the country that holds the EU presidency in addition to works of art from the permanent collection.