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EU Commission exceeding powers over rule of law crackdown, Slovenian PM Janez Janša tells Euronews

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By Efi Koutsokosta
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The Slovenian Prime Minister hosted a special EU summit focused on enlargement and relations with the Western Balkans.
The Slovenian Prime Minister hosted a special EU summit focused on enlargement and relations with the Western Balkans.   -   Copyright  Darko Bandic/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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The European Commission is "close to breaking the rule of law" with its efforts to ensure member states comply with the bloc's fundamental values, says Janez Janša, Prime Minister of Slovenia.

In a lengthy interview with Euronews, Janša denounced the executive of President von der Leyen for entering into "political battles" of member states and failing to be an "honest broker". He also said the rule of law has become a "politically abused term" exploited for partisan purposes.

"We have the UN Charter of Human Rights. We have a European charter of human rights, but in political language, especially in the European Parliament, everyone can add to this list whatever he or she wants. So it's politically abused term and used for political battle," he said.

Janša's comments come as the European Commission is preparing to activate a new mechanism that links EU funds and compliance with the rule of law. The Commission, after finding a suspected breach of EU law, can recommend the suspension of EU payments. The decision has to be ratified by national governments with a qualified majority vote. Janša disagrees with the way the scheme operates.

"[The] European Parliament is a political body. It's a place for political debates and also for political conflicts. But it's not the same with the European Commission and the European Council. According to the treaty, the European Commission should stay out of the political battles, which was the case till the Juncker Commission. And then this changed," the prime minister said.

"I think this is close to breaking the rule of law because the Commission has to be an honest broker."

According to the EU treaties, the Commission must ensure the application of the treaties and EU law. The executive is entitled to open an infringement procedure against a member state that is failing to apply EU law. If the member state doesn't correct the wrongdoing, the Commission can bring legal action before the EU's Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Janša also condemned Věra Jourová, the European Commissioner in charge of overseeing values and transparency across the bloc. Jourová, alongside Commissioner Didier Reynders, has become the most public face of the Commission's effort to ensure compliance with the rule of law.

"Věra Jourová is, according to my opinion, issuing statements which are a clear violation of the treaty. But she's supported by the European press. So she is continuing with this. If this would have happened 15 years ago, I think she wouldn't stay as a member of the Commission for one week. At that time, the rules were clear," Janša said, without specifying what kind of statements he was referring to.

Viktor Orbán, Hungary's Prime Minister and close ally of Janša, had previously demanded the resignation of Jourová after the Commissioner said Hungary was veering away from Western democracy. Orbán said the comments amounted to a "direct political attack" but a Commission spokesperson came in her defence saying Jourová has the "full trust" of President von der Leyen.

'Africa is our backyard, not the backyard of the US'

Janez Janša spoke with Euronews at the end of a special summit focused on EU relations with its Western Balkans regions. Slovenia hosted the gathering in Brdo pri Kranju as the current holder of the EU's six-month rotating presidency. Janša had previously signalled engagement with the Balkans and EU enlargement were going to be at the top of the Slovenian presidency's political priorities.

The summit didn't yield any major political breakthrough due to deep-rooted divisions among member states and simply reaffirmed the EU's commitment to the enlargement process, without any deadline or time-frame. Leaders agreed to set up a new economic package to provide €9 billion in grants to the region, with the potential of mobilising up to €20 billion in public and private investment.

"[It's not] only about investments in infrastructure, economic cooperation and so on. OK, we are doing this. The European Union is the biggest investor in the region. It's very important they appreciate it. But in those areas, we have competitors. There is also China, Russia, Turkey, They are also coming with the investment and they are not conditioning this," Janša said.

"We are conditioning this with European standards, the rule of law reforms, which is OK, if there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But if the EU membership perspective is not granted, then I think we will start to lose this competition battle.

"There is one big advantage on our side: the EU membership. I think that nobody or almost nobody from the Western Balkans wants to be part of China, Russia or Turkey. They want to be part of the European Union. But if this perspective is not real, then we are losing momentum and we are at a crucial moment."

The special summit was preceded by an informal dinner where EU leaders discussed the bloc's strategic autonomy and ambitions to become more independent, including in the field of defence. Some member states are worried these calls will alienate NATO and the United States, which they see as an indispensable partner. Janša believes both efforts are compatible.

"China is a superpower. They [went] to Mars without us noticing this, really. They are very far in artificial intelligence, in the cyber capacities. Now we are struggling with the lack of semiconductors, and they still don't know what's the real issue behind, but we know what are the consequences. So to make long answer short, we need NATO during this discussion," he said.

"Last night, the member countries which are not members of NATO admitted they do need NATO. But NATO and the United States will not solve the problems and conflicts in our backyard, in our neighbourhood, in the Western Balkans, in the Mediterranean. This is our duty."

Janša thinks the EU's weakness lies in its lack of coordination between national armies. The bloc should be more focused on securing its own external borders instead of "sending money and humanitarian aid, which is then finishing in the hands of the terrorists or the warlords," he added.

"Africa is our backyard. It's not the backyard of the United States."

'No place in Europe for 10 million Afghans'

Two recent developments have given new momentum to the calls for greater European autonomy: the rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the surprising AUKUS pact, a new military alliance between the US, the UK and Australia meant to counteract China's influence in the Indo-Pacific. The pact infuriated France after Canberra cancelled a €50-billion submarine contract.

"I got yesterday morning a call from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. He asked me to convey this to our colleagues that for them, the European Union is still a strategic partner," Janša said.

"The European Union is needed in the Pacific, not only France," he added. "[The EU] is a global power. We have influence in the world and the world has influence on us, and we have to take this responsibility."

The other geopolitical crisis, the collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government, has increased fears over a future wave of refugees fleeing the Taliban rule and coming to Europe in search of protection and asylum. Civil society organisations say these fears are overblown and there is no evidence of an imminent refugee wave.

In a sort of preemptive move, member states, under the auspices of the Slovenian presidency, decided to avoid a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis and step up support for neighbouring countries, like Pakistan, to prevent massive flows of migrants from reaching the EU's borders.

"Our obligation is to help those who helped us," Janša said, referring to the Afghans who worked for European diplomatic missions and were evacuated from the country alongside EU citizens. "But there is no place in Europe for 10 million Afghanistan people."

"The European Union will not repeat the mistake some member countries made in 2015 after the war in Syria. Because this didn't hurt only the fibre of the European Union, but same people who are really refugees and we are not able to help them because we took a million migrants who were not refugees and they took place of those who really needed [asylum]."