Slovenia takes EU driver’s seat as values questions dominate

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa (R) welcomes the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (2-R) during the official meeting of the European Commission at Brdo castle and Congress center, near Kranj, Slovenia, 01 July 2021. From 01 July 2021 Slovenia takes over the EU Presidency from Portugal for the next six months. [EPA-EFE/TOMI LOMBAR]

A joint press conference between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša was dominated with questions over rule of law, media freedom and EU values.

Slovenia started its six-month stint at the helm of the EU Council on Thursday (1 June) with a program centred on pandemic recovery, the Conference on the Future of Europe, rule of law and enlargement.

However, Ljubljana’s second stab at the presidency since the country joined the bloc in 2004 has movers and shakers in Brussels holding their breath, as the conservative Prime Minister Janez Janša has recently raised eyebrows on numerous occasions.

Close ally and friend to his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, Janša has been quick to take to Twitter to make often unfounded claims about his political opponents, journalists and civil society.

Pressed by journalists about his support for Orbán during last week’s meeting of EU leaders where Budapest was questioned over its commitment to EU values after the adoption of a law banning “portrayal or promotion” of LGBTQI+ identity to minors, Janša said reports were “lacking in details”, and the discussion depended on where on the “spectrum … we find the right of parents to educate their children”.

Janša stressed that courts should be the ones who decide on rule of law issues, but said that Slovenia “can be an honest broker” on values.

“If you think if an EU consisting of 27 member states will in a couple of years become a melting pot where we all think alike… you would better think again”, he added.

In seeming contradiction with the Slovenian prime minister, Commission President von der Leyen said the right of parents to educate their children was not disputed, rather the centre of disagreement was whether the Hungarian law discriminated against minorities.

Answering the Commission letter detailing concerns with the Hungarian law, Hungarian justice ministry wrote, “no one should be allowed to force Hungarian parents to accept that their children can receive sexual education without their explicit consent.”

The Commission confirmed receiving the reply, “which we will now study carefully,” a spokesperson told EURACTIV, adding that it “will not hesitate to take legal action”.

Squabbles over prosecutors

While in Slovenia, Von der Leyen presented the country’s approved recovery plan, which will see Brussels wire 1.8 billion in grants and €705 million in loans from money borrowed from the markets under the EU’s €750 billion recovery package.

However, Slovenia is yet to appoint a European delegated prosecutors to the prosecutor to European Public Prosecutor’s Office, a voluntary scheme Ljubljana decided to join under the previous government.

In light of this, EPPO Chief prosecutor Laura Kövesi said she sees Slovenia as a “huge risk” as EU funds will flow to Slovenia without proper management control systems.

The “manifest lack of sincere cooperation of Slovenian authorities will influence a lot the efficiency of the EPPO,” Kövesi added in an interview with Politico published on Thursday.

Janša shot back, saying that Kövesi’s statements “in my opinion are too political and do not help solve the situation”.

He said Slovenia was repeating the selection procedure and “we can finish by autumn, if everyone does their job”.

Commending the voluntary choice of Slovenia to join EPPO, Von der Leyen said the institution “is a crucial component to protect European taxpayer’s money”.

However, Von der Leyen added that there are other mechanisms to monitor EU funds’ implementation, such as national audit institution, European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and the new conditionality mechanism tying bloc money to rule of law.

The Commission president also omitted answering the question of journalists if the EU executive would be willing to take action against Slovenia if the delays persist.

Media freedom concerns

The government halted funding of EURACTIV’s media partner Slovenian press agency STA in December 2020, arguing that it had not submitted the correct documentation.

Despite a pledge to resume payments in January 2021, after pressure from Brussels, no funding has been received by STA since February.

Von der Leyen chided Slovenia on this matter, saying she expects Ljubljana will swiftly sort out the financing and ensure its independence.

She said free and critical media which exercise oversight of governments were “the central element of any democratic society”, noting that the Commission’s concerns regarding the STA were well known and that the Commission had repeatedly voiced the expectation that the issue would be resolved.

“We believe that Slovenia must ensure the independence and appropriate funding of the public service provided by the agency, so we expect that swift solutions are found to unblock the funding,” she said, adding that the Commission “will follow up on the developments”.

Commenting on the issue, Janša said STA must conclude an agreement with the government.

“It is a European standard to settle an invoice when you have received it. But for someone to issue an invoice, there has to be a valid agreement. And this is the only problem we have concerning the agency,” he said.

“I hope that after these complications, which were completely unnecessary, we’ve now arrived at a solution and that this issue will be off the agenda,” Janša added.

Slovenia resumes funding news agency after EU warning

The Slovenian government said on Thursday (14 January) it had restored the financing of national news agency STA after Brussels warned against any attempt to pressure public media outlets.

Von der Leyen, for her part, expressed hope that the issue will resolved urgently.

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