“Where in Europe do you place Slovenia? The Balkans, Southern Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, Western Europe?” Slovenian President Borut Pahor asked his lunch guests at the Bled strategic forum in 2018. The question, no doubt, was about more than simple geography.
Rarely has Europe’s divisions seemed more palpable than at last week’s European summit, as leaders fought over Viktor Orbán's anti-LGBT laws. “It’s not just Orbán,” concluded French President Macron, “unfortunately, it's a deeper problem – there is an East-West divide.”
It’s a dramatic stage-set for Slovenia’s EU Council Presidency, which started on July 1. And a reminder that, although a Presidency’s role first and foremost is to steer laws through the Council, it will not necessarily go clear of Europe’s big politics.
Delivering recovery money and the Green Deal
Slovenia’s small but efficient civil service is surely well-prepared for the six-month-long legislative marathon that is a Council presidency. In 2008, it acquitted itself of the task well – as the first of the ten 2004 enlargement countries to take the EU’s helm.
This time round, the legislative agenda is heavier, with 200+ files in process. The priority in July will be to oversee the adoption of the continent’s 27 recovery and resilience plans to unlock the first instalments of the EU’s €672.5 billion crisis funding. Yet any major hiccups would be a surprise, as the footwork will already have been done by the Commission.
Things might become more complicated with the mega-package of Green Deal legislation that lands on Slovenia’s desk on July 14. It includes complex reforms to the EU’s Emissions Trading System, energy tax and efficiency, renewables, and land use rules so that the EU reaches ‘minus 55% in 2030’ and ‘net zero’ climate objectives in 2050.
Slovenia’s role is to draw a roadmap to swift adoption, but not all member states will agree with the speed of transition and the associated costs, despite significant ‘just transition’ financing and a groundbreaking CO2 border tax proposal.
Western Balkan hopes and deceptions
High on the agenda is also the Western Balkans and enlargement, with a summit set for October 6. Since the French and Dutch vetoed North Macedonia and Albania in 2019, the enlargement process towards the whole region is in disarray. Paris had been saying for years that the EU accession process was not working, so the French ‘non’ did not exactly come out of nowhere.
But leaving the Western Balkans without a tangible European perspective would be a grave mistake. The region is hard-hit by the pandemic and cash-strapped, with weak government institutions and healthcare. And as the EU dithers, it’s China, Russia and Turkey that are stealthily moving their pawns forward.
An enlargement solution is unlikely to be found a mere 6-months ahead of the French presidential elections. Yet a proactive Slovenian presidency could help secure investment beyond the EU’s foreseen €14bn Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA). It could also push the debate on what has been called a ‘two-stage accession’ process, with faster integration into different policy areas, from transport and energy connectivity to research and innovation, decarbonisation and digitalization, and crucially also, into the single market.
Standing up for the rule of law?
If this was not enough, where the Presidency will get truly tried and tested is on its promise to “strengthen the rule of law and European values”. Many have choked on that claim. Over the past 15 months, Prime Minister Janez Janša and his right-wing government has, repeatedly, verbally attacked the judiciary and the media, including putting pressure on the national press agency STA’s funding and governance. Civil society organisations report a hostile environment and backsliding on democratic standards.
Yet overall, amid strong civil society pushback, the liberal democratic backbone stands strong within the country. In fact, Freedom House ranks Slovenia above, amongst others, the U.K., Italy, and Spain in its 2021 report. But any fast deterioration is worrying, and also unwelcome considering Slovenia was the poster child of the member states which most recently joined the EU.
On the upside, the Presidency means that PM Janša is now facing a critical spotlight, also within his European political family, Angela Merkel’s European People’s Party (EPP), where concerns over fundamental rights were previously too easily brushed under the carpet. However, the EU schism over values does not look close to being solved. Values are an existential issue, and EU fundamental rights or rule of law cannot be compromised on or negotiated away.
A prelude to break-up or a future for Europe?
The onus is first and foremost on EU institutions to make full use of the instruments at their disposal, starting with bringing Hungary before the European Court of Justice (CJEU).
Yet the most forceful measures against a member state – suspending its rights through the Article 7 procedure – are easily held back by the need for unanimity among EU heads of state and government. The new rule of law conditionality regulation, linking EU funds to the respect of fundamental values, is yet to be applied awaiting the result of an CJEU challenge by Poland and Hungary.
In parallel, a deeper discussion of the Union’s values is required. The peoples of Europe should not be uniformly equated to their leaders; not all Hungarians think like Viktor Orbán, nor do all Slovenians accept Janša’s media assaults. The fight for Europe's soul must be taken further in the Conference on the Future of Europe – the Slovenian Presidency’s final priority area.
Ultimately, that is where the Union still stands a chance.
The EU’s five years of Brexit negotiations showed that, when put to the test, all 27 member states preferred rallying together rather than dividing. Even firebrand populists like France's Marine Le Pen and Italy's Matteo Salvini discovered that breaking the EU was not a viable political proposition to the electorate. The wager must be that with democratic debate, also in Hungary, Orbán will not win an election on an illiberal rant that takes his country out of the EU.
As for Slovenia, looking at the Presidency’s slogan ("Together. Resilient. Europe.") and as President Pahor, PM Janša’s long-time political opponent, answers his own question about where the country belongs, its place is at the heart of the Union.
Georg E. Riekeles is an Associate Director and Perle Petit is a Programme Assistant at the European Policy Centre
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