At a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday, Prime Minister Janez Janša presented the six-month programme and the priorities of the Slovenian EU Presidency in the second half of 2021.
The Presidency kicked off in Slovenia on 1 July with a meeting with the College of the European Commission where Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a speech outlined the expectationsof Slovenia’s EU Presidency. The meeting in Slovenia with the Commission however did not go as planned and sparked a minor diplomatic rowover issues of the rule of law and press freedom.
This time in the Parliament the Slovenian Prime Minister came more prepared and assured the MEPs that his country will chair the Presidency in the best interests of the EU.
“The priorities of this semester lie between the recovery and resilience after the epidemic and the debate on the future of the EU and Europe at the Conference on the Future of Europe that began in May,” he said, expressing his hope that these six months will indeed mean the transition from dealing with the crisis and its consequences to focusing on the strategic dilemmas ahead.
He urged EU to start a joint campaign against vaccine hesitancy and accelerate the vaccination rollout. He added that it was a miracle that EU jointly has ordered or produced vaccines and set up their production in such a short time. “It would really be a pity to be in lockdown in the autumn because we are unable to persuade people to make use of this achievement.”
The Slovenia Presidency will also focus on foreign affairs issues and tend to current tense relations with some third countries but enlargement will apparently be high on the agenda. The first Western Balkan summit will be held on 6 October in Slovenia, where the European Council will meet with leaders of the candidate countries.
“Here we hope that there will be concrete breakthroughs in speeding up the integration and approximation of some Western Balkan countries to the EU,” he said. Whether there will enough time before the summit to solve the current impasse in starting accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia remains to be seen.
He added that Slovenians welcome EU membership for everyone “because we achieved it ourselves, we know what it means, we are helping candidate countries for this reason too, because it is good for us, for them, for the EU, because it is a strategic response to strategic challenges in our neighbourhood.” It is time that enlargement becomes a priority again, he underlined.
At the following press conference, he promised that Slovenia will complete the procedure for appointing a European delegated prosecutors for the European Public Prosecutors Office (EPPO) by Autumn, adding that he regrets “that we are dealing with two prosecutors from Slovenia, whereas no one is asking why Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Sweden are not participating in this mechanism.”
Addressing previous criticism in the European Parliament, he said “there were no problems or obstacles on our side for the subcommittee (LIBE) to come to Slovenia and examine cases related to the freedom of the media and the rule of law. We even invited the European Commission to come and check everything.” Such a fact-finding mission will apparently take place during the Presidency.
“As far as the freedom of the media in Slovenia is concerned, this is the third time I have led the Government, and every time I have led the Government Slovenia’s ranking on media freedom indexes has risen,” the Prime Minister claimed, adding that Slovenia’s ranking on said indexes was higher last year as well.
His appearance in the Parliament was overall well-received with most MEPs welcoming the Slovenian Presidency’s priorities, particularly the focus on recovery through the digital and green transition. Several insisted that work on upholding rule of law across the EU must continue, and cited concerns regarding the situation of independent media and judiciary in Slovenia.
Reactions followed partly political divisions in the Parliament with the centre-right political group European People’s Party (EPP) expressing strong support.
Its leader Manfred Weber twitted that “Slovenia can be proud of the start of the EU Council Presidency. The focus is clear: continue the recovery from the pandemic, create jobs for next generations & protect the #RuleOfLaw. Looking forward to working together.”
Other political groups such as Renew and the Greens/EFA were more critical.
Philippe Lamberts MEP, President of the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament, commented that the Slovenian Presidency has already kicked off badly with tirades against judges. “This kind of behaviour does not exactly fill us with confidence that the Prime Minister will act in the best interests of the EU throughout the Presidency.”
“The Slovenian Presidency needs to ensure that it will act as an honest broker and be able to steer the Council through the next six months, free from personal interference. The Slovenian Presidency kicks off at a crucial moment for the EU just as the recovery plans are moving forward and EU leaders will need to make tough and bold decisions on the climate and rule of law.”
He added that, “We will welcome the Presidency’s efforts to move forward as a constructive partner on these issues.”