Under the motto “Together. Resilient. Europe.“, Slovenia took over its six-month Council Presidency on 1st July 2021. However, compared to previous Presidencies, it was a rather bumpy start.
The headlines at the start of the Slovenian Presidency were dominated by an insult by the Slovenian Minister for the Interior, Aleš Hojs, which lead to the refusal of a joint photograph by the European Commission’s Vice President, Frans Timmermans. Apart from that, the presentation of the Slovenian Programme by Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša before the European Parliament was followed by a critical debate on the Rule of Law.
The Slovenian Presidency is focussing on four priorities within the scope of its programme: under the heading “Resilience, Recovery and Strategic Autonomy”, it does not only want to improve the EUs protection against pandemics, but also against cyber-attacks. At the same time, it confirms the current way out of the crisis, which shall continue via the digital, green and just transformation. As a second priority, Slovenia wants to engage in numerous debates within the EU to drive forward the Conference on the Future of Europe, which started in May 2021, to collect ideas from the population of the Europe of the future. Another priority is a credible and secure European Union, “capable of ensuring security and stability in its neighbourhood”, whereby the NATO alliance is as much emphasized as the protection to external borders and the intention to differentiate between legal and illegal migration.
However, special focus will be placed on Slovenia because of her fourth priority, “a Union of the European way of life, the rule of law and the same criteria for all”. Even though the programme states wanting to secure the “high level of protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to freedom of expression“, Slovenia and her Prime Minister Janez Janša have attacked both freedom of expression and freedom of the press at national level, for which they are being criticised.
Hence, many MEPs addressed this issue during the debate with Janez Janša on 6 July 2021: Whilst the Liberal MEP Malik Azmani (Renew) places the Slovenian Prime Minister in a “sinister club” that doesn’t appreciate free media and puts journalists and judges under pressure, MEP Martin Schirdewan of the Left Group in the European Parliament (GUE/NGL) regards the way, in which Slovenia currently tries to curtail media freedom and judicial independence, as a political scandal. The leader of the Social Democrats in the European Parliament, Iratxe Garcia Perez (S&D), recalled that the European Parliament was the only EU institution, which was directly elected by the people and that it was open to cooperation. Apart from the rule of law, she also criticised that Slovenia was the only country that had not yet appointed any judges to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO).
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen statement was also nuanced: in spite of “all differences” she wanted to cooperate with Slovenia. Trust was important, and this was linked to good governance, robust measures against corruption as well as free and independent media and an efficient judicial system. Apart from that, she recalled Janša’s words 15 years earlier, when Slovenia – also under Prime Minister Janez Janša –held the EU Presidency for the first time: “People, who were not born in the EU have a very special relationship to our Union. For us the European Union is not something to be taken for granted. We are prepared to do everything to ensure that the European Union is preserved, developed and strengthened.” And it is exactly this strengthening and development, which also includes the freedom of expression and media freedom, on which Janša could count on the Commission President.