After taking the helm of the EU Council in July, Slovenia now closed the current Trio of presidencies, all of which have been marked by the all-encompassing fight against COVID-19. The rotating presidency in itself was designed to enable each country of the EU to put their own priorities on the European agenda. It offers them a chance to promote their diplomacy and help design the future of the Union as a whole, as well as (if done correctly), put a distinguishing mark on the country. For six months, the international spotlight shines on a single state, but as can be seen in the case of Slovenia, this has proven to be a double-edged sword. Whereas most countries use this opportunity to dazzle, Slovenia had found itself amongst the highest criticism it may have ever received in the international arena.
Bad warm-up usually results in a bad start
The turbulence began even before the baton was passed. For months, Slovenia had remained the only country out of 22 that joined the European Public Prosecutor Office (EPPO), which had failed to appoint a new European Prosecutor. The EPPO was designed for the purposes of monitoring the correct spending of the EU funds – a task of the utmost importance in times when the EU is spending close to 700 billion euros through the Recovery and Resilience Facility, helping to ease and quicken the recovery of its Member States. The implication of such action threw shade at both the desire of Slovenia for this process to be transparent, as well as where the funds will end up. Failing to provide a European Prosecutor, the working of the EPPO was hindered and this in turn already caused a strife between the leading figures of the EU on one side, and the Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Janša, on the other. We see that as soon as the starting gun went off, Slovenia found itself on the opposite side of a united Europe.
If one looked at the press, it almost seemed as if Slovenia was deliberately trying to blemish its image in the eyes of the international community. Prime Minister Janša’s highly undiplomatic rhetoric both in public meetings and on Twitter attracted mostly scrutinizing media headlines, which were in turn setting a perturbed tone for the upcoming Slovenian presidency. Furthermore, Slovenia appeared to be in an unprecedented crisis of both the freedom of public press, and the continued pressure on the objectivity of its judicial system, both being accredited to the Slovenian Prime Minister. It did not stop there however – on the contrary, it culminated in the form of a diplomatic bombshell at the inaugural celebration of Slovenian presidency, where Prime Minister Janša accused two judges and two members of the European Parliament of reciprocal fraternisation. Frans Timmerans, the Vice-President of the European Commission, did not even bother to hide his outrage at this move and out of protest refused to join in on the group photo of the Slovenian government and the European Commission. What was supposed to be a positive, if at least not an uneventful occasion, had turned in to a PR nightmare not only for the Slovenian diplomacy, but also for the image of Slovenia and its increasingly worrying traditional political allies.
The captain steers towards murky waters
The unspoken question at the time was, “Where is Slovenia headed?” The answer to that question became apparent at the 16th annual Bled Strategic Forum (BSF), one of the crown events of Slovenian diplomacy. As one of the most important international events Slovenia ever produced, the 2021 edition of BSF prioritised addressing the enlargement policy of the EU to the Western Balkans, as a part of wider talks during the ongoing Conference on the Future of Europe. What gave credence to the event was the fact it was attended by the highest Western Balkan leaders and relevant EU leaders, such as the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, as well as a plethora of prime ministers and national presidents. Such a mixture of EU and Western Balkans panellists indeed gave the image of a truly European event.
Nevertheless, what is arguably more important to notice, is to see who was missing. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, had presumably been disheartened by the then-recent actions of the Slovenian Presidency and was one of the notable no-shows. Furthermore, such as high-profile event of the Slovenian Presidency was expected to attract at least someone from the state next in line to take the EU Council throne, but France had rather alarmingly failed to provide a representative. In fact, most of the Western hemisphere was conspicuously missing its own officials at the event, which was supposed to represent a platform for talks on the future European integration. With these absentees, the BSF was left to be dominated by representatives of Eastern Europe, even putting in front certain leaders of the so-branded “illiberal democracies”, such as Hungary and Serbia.
The implication could be that these autocratic leaders, who have been becoming increasingly more vocal in their criticism of the EU, and who infamously represent a thorn in the heel of liberal Europe, gained not only the prime spot on the BSF podium, but had perhaps also quietly acquired a new ally – one in the middle of presiding over the EU. Whereas its geopolitical situation would have offered Slovenia the chance to soften the dialogue in the tensions occurring with differentiating values, and in the EU enlargement process, it instead chose to rub shoulders with the countries that have been having problems with the rule of law, the freedom of their media, and free expression of the people.
What the future holds in store
Could Slovenia potentially become the axe that divides the EU? Quite probably not. Slovenia stands to lose too much if it were to start all-out political hostilities towards Brussels, and still holds many of the similar values and views as the rest of the Europe, and. It has shown it cares deeply for the safety and well-being of the European citizens, supporting both the proposed Health Union and the Enlargement Policy of the EU during its time of Presidency. One should also point out that it seems as if the EU gave up on Slovenia rather quickly. Instead of presenting a strong façade and trying to remain in good diplomatic relations, the EU leaders seem to be almost sulking because of the misbehaving actions of a single state, or more precisely, its leader. It is reminiscent of a disastrous self-fulfilling prophecy, and can most certainly be interpreted as an ill omen, if the most influential EU countries and the leaders of EU institutions decide to distance themselves from their smaller partners. One thing is certain however – there will be a united sigh of relief when Slovenia is officially replaced in the presidency by a country that openly praises the EU, rather than questions it.
Nonetheless, the stain upon Slovenia’s image will be hard to erase in the near future. Its diplomacy has suffered a blow, and the vast part of Europe that remains united throws a worrying eye towards the leper that stands at the gates to the Balkans. It is unclear why Slovenia’s Prime Minister chose the time around their presidency to stir up controversy with the rest of the EU by challenging practically every institution and sovereign leader, but due to this very reason, the effect was substantially compounded. If Slovenia wanted to project a strong image in the face of the EU, the plan most definitely backfired, as it created a larger rift in its diplomacy instead of using this chance to create better connections. Slovenia so ends its presidency with a large wound on its image – but rather than recognizing it as a crippling injury, PM Janša seems to think of it in terms of a heroic battle scar.
The author was an intern in CEP.