Slovenia's turn at the EU helm off to a tense, rocky start

In this May 25, 2021 file photo, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, speaks with Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Jansa in Brussels. Slovenia takes over the European Union presidency with its Prime Minister in the focus because of his squabbles with Brussels, alliance with populist Hungarian leader Viktor Orban and increasingly autocratic policies. All of these are casting doubt on the small countrys credibility to lead the 27-nation bloc. Although the rotating 6-month EU Council presidency, which Slovenia assumes from Portugal on Thursday, is mostly bureaucratic and to an extent symbolic, it comes amid the blocs painful post-COVID-19 recovery, the stalled EU enlargement process and concerns that the leadership role could be used by the government to further obstruct media freedoms in Slovenia and elsewhere in Europe. (John Thys, Pool via AP) (John Thys)

KRANJ – Slovenia’s presidency of the European Union got off to a tense, rocky start Thursday, as the EU’s chief executive demanded that the right-wing government end a funding rift with the small Alpine country’s main news agency.

At a news event meant to usher in Slovenia’s six-month term at the EU’s helm, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also urged Prime Minister Janez Jansa to swiftly nominate a delegate to the EU prosecutor’s office, a new body aimed at investigating graft across the 27-nation bloc.

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“We need media, and free media, that is critical as an oversight of governmental activities or, for example, European Commission activities. This is the essence of democracy,” a stony-faced von der Leyen told reporters during a visit to Slovenia with her team of commissioners.

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

Pressure has been mounting on Jansa’s government in recent months as it prepares for its EU presidency, which is largely an agenda-setting bureaucratic role — an “honest broker” trying to ensure the smooth adoption of files in a wide-range of European policies.

Last month, some 20,000 people gathered at a central square in the capital, Ljubljana, to demand that the government step down and early elections be held. Several workers’ unions and opposition parties joined the demonstration.

Critics accuse Jansa of assuming increasingly authoritarian ways similar to those of his ally, Hungary’s hardline Prime Minister Viktor Orban. They claim that Jansa’s government has pressured Slovenian media and spurred hate speech, while mishandling the coronavirus crisis.

He has come under particular scrutiny for keeping a strangle-hold on funds for Slovenia’s only news agency, the STA.

But on Thursday he said, somewhat cryptically, that “in Europe, you usually pay the bill when you get it. Our problem is that we need a document.” He did not provide details but said that he expects the problem to be resolved this fall.

Officials in Brussels have also been concerned for some time about Jansa’s delay in appointing two legal experts to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, a new body that started work this month with a brief of tackling fraud linked to the EU’s budget.

“It is a crucial component to protect EU tax-payers’ money,” von der Leyen said. “It is very good that Slovenia has signed up to it, and now Slovenia must deliver and cooperate with the EPPO.”

“I count on the prime minister to submit names of candidates to the EPPO with utmost urgency,” she said.

Von der Leyen’s remarks came just as the EU’s executive branch endorsed Slovenia’s plan to revive its economy and stands ready to provide 1.8 billion euros ($2.1 billion) in grants and 705 million euros ($836 million) in loans.

Commission experts said the appointment of delegates to the public prosecutor’s office is not a requirement for the plan to be approved.

Such occasions are usually marked by good humor. But in a sign of tensions behind the scenes, von der Leyen’s deputy, European Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans, refused to take part in the “family photo” between Slovenia’s cabinet and the commissioners.

It came after Jansa, complaining about leftist politicians, displayed a photograph depicting two Slovenian judges alongside opposition members.

“I simply could not be on the same podium with PM Jansa after his unacceptable attack” on the judges and politicians, Timmermans said in a statement after the meeting. He added that judicial independence and respect for the role of elected officials — in this case from his own Socialist party group — are cornerstones of the rule of law.

“We can never stop calling out those who attack it,” he said.

Last month, European Chief Prosecutor Laura Kovesi said that “you cannot efficiently investigate all the suspicions of fraud without European delegated prosecutors.” She said that “the manifest lack of sincere cooperation of the Slovenian authorities with the EPPO seriously undermines the trust in the effective functioning of the management and control systems for EU funds in Slovenia.”

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