Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Jansa takes the reins of the EU's rotating presidency from Portugal on Thursday. It comes amid concern over his quarrels with Brussels over the rule of law, press freedom, and his increasingly autocratic style.
It's the second time the central European country with two million inhabitants has occupied the six-month position. But there is currently doubt over the country’s credibility to lead the 27-nation bloc.
In 2008, Slovenia was considered a model student in Europe and the presidency was celebrated as a milestone in the ex-Yugoslav country's road to independence.
The conservative Jansa was already in power. But since then he has moved away from liberal values and his critics accuse him of copying the authoritarianism of his populist ally Viktor Orban.
Among the challenges over the next six months, Slovenia will chair a summit in the autumn on the integration of Western Balkan countries. It will also oversee the fight against COVID-19 and the relaunch of the EU economy, as countries prepare to receive their share of the Commission's €750 billion recovery package.
But attention will undoubtedly focus on another aspect of the programme: Slovenia promises to "reinforce the rule of law and European values", a subject which causes division among the EU27.
Slovenia 'will remain a liberal state'
Slovenia's liberal president rejected in an interview Wednesday that his prime minister's authoritarianism could hurt the nation's European Union presidency, saying the small Alpine state will stay on its traditional liberal course.
“Of course, there are some activities of the government that I don’t agree with," President Borut Pahor said in an interview with the Associated Press.
“Slovenia will remain a liberal state and I wish that the image of a liberal state would be solidified during the presidency," he added. “If the European idea was the first cornerstone of our statehood, democracy is the second one."
Pahor said one of Slovenia's main tasks during the presidency will be the quicker EU accession of the Western Balkan states — Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo.
Some leading EU members, such as France and Germany, have increasingly shown enlargement fatigue amid the bloc's numerous internal problems and issues.
Pahor said failure to accept new Balkan members could only lead to increasing Russian and Chinese influence in Europe.
Concern over alliance with populists
At a summit last week, Jansa avoided criticising his counterpart Viktor Orban amid fury of the country's new legislation judged to be homophobic and contrary to EU values. The Slovenian leader called on countries to avoid "new unnecessary divisions".
"We have to strengthen the EU, within which our values and national identities are protected and can continue to thrive,” Jansa wrote on the presidency website, echoing the speech of Hungary's prime minister.
Last week the 62-year-old Slovenian leader also met Giorgia Meloni, head of the Italian far-right party the Brothers of Italy, as well as Poland's Mateusz Morawiecki.
In a tweet accompanying a promotional video charting European history since World War II, Janez Jansa says it recalls: "Why the #EU was created and why we still have to fight for the #EUflag and for its original message".
But Jansa has previously taken to Twitter to attack EU officials, including European Parliament members who had expressed their concern over the situation of democracy and rule of law in Slovenia.
“We owe the EU nothing. We fought for our freedom and democracy 30 years ago,” he tweeted in May.
Quarrels with Brussels
The Slovenian prime minister's skirmishes with the European Commission have been numerous since his return to power in March 2020.
Ignoring calls to order from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and others, he has multiplied attacks against journalists and deprived the national news agency STA of public funds. In March he cut short a videoconference with MEPs, complaining of "censorship".
"We are concerned by the risk that the six-month Presidency will be abused by the government to obstruct efforts to strengthen media freedom in Europe," RSF said in a recent article on its website.
Slovenia's government so far has failed to appoint two prosecutors to the EU’s new anti-corruption body, leading its head to criticise Slovenia for its “manifest lack of sincere cooperation”.
“These are the things that worry us,” French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a European Parliament rapporteur on Hungary, told AFP, underlining “the closeness of the Slovenian prime minister and Viktor Orban”.
Jansa is also a divisive figure within Slovenia and in recent months there have been regular protests in Ljubljana against his policies.
Slovenia split from Yugoslavia in 1991 after a brief clash with the Serb-led Yugoslav army. In 2004 it became one of the first former communist states to join the EU.