EU chair Slovenia to stay on liberal course, president says

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LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — Slovenia's president rejected in an interview Wednesday that the increasingly autocratic policies of the country's prime minister could hurt its upcoming European Union presidency, saying the small Alpine state will stay on its traditional liberal course.

Slovenia takes over the rotating EU Council presidency on Thursday. Its right-wing prime minister, Janez Jansa, is in the focus because of his squabbles with Brussels, close alliance with populist Hungarian leader Viktor Orban and crackdown on media — all which cast doubt on the country’s credibility to lead the 27-nation bloc.

“Of course, there are some activities of the government that I don’t agree with," Slovenia's liberal President Borut Pahor said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I hope this is a chance for the government and the prime minister to focus more on subjects that are vital for Slovenia and the EU.”

Slovenia split from Yugoslavia in 1991 after a brief clash with the Serb-led Yugoslav army. In 2004 it became one of the first former communist state to join the EU.

“Slovenia will remain a liberal state and I wish that the image of a liberal state would be solidified during the presidency," Pahor said. “If the European idea was the first cornerstone of our statehood, democracy is the second one."

Although the rotating six-month EU Council presidency, which Slovenia assumes from Portugal, is mostly a bureaucratic task, it comes amid the bloc’s painful post-COVID-19 recovery, its stalled enlargement process and concerns that the leadership role could be used by the government to further obstruct media freedom in Slovenia and elsewhere in Europe.

In May, Jansa narrowly survived an impeachment motion filed by opposition parties which accused him of clamping down on the press and mismanaging the pandemic by failing to provide enough vaccines for the nation of about 2 million.

The prime minister's unorthodox style of leadership included his staunch support for former U.S. President Donald Trump during the last American election: Jansa congratulated Trump on his “victory” long before the official results were published.

In Slovenia, Jansa is nicknamed “Marshal Twito” — a pun playing on the name of the former Yugoslav dictator Marshal Josip Broz Tito — because of his frequent use of Twitter. Jansa is known to use Twitter to attack his political opponents and make unfounded claims.

The country at the EU helm prepares meeting agendas and calendars. It’s expected to put national politics aside and play the role of an “honest broker” with the aim of fostering agreements between EU member states.

Slovenia, which also held the presidency in early 2008, takes over just as the EU prepares to start distributing its massive coronavirus recovery fund.

When she arrives in Slovenia later this week for a handover ceremony, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is expected to officially approve Slovenia’s national plan for access to the fund — an event likely to be the focal point of the visit to Ljubljana by the EU’s executive branch.

But EU officials will be watching carefully to see how Jansa handles the thorny issue of democratic standards. Hungary and Poland, notably, are embroiled in technical and legal proceedings with Brussels over allegations that their nationalist governments are undermining the rule of law.

Jansa’s silence when most EU nations were criticizing Orban at a summit last week over a new Hungarian law seen as thwarting LGBT rights for minors will not have gone unnoticed in Brussels.

In its official presidency program, Slovenia says it plans to “focus our efforts on strengthening the rule of law as one of (the) common European values.”

“Our aim is to promote a culture of the rule of law throughout the EU and, through inclusive debate, enable member states to learn from each other’s experiences,” the program says, as well as to show how it “can be further strengthened in full respect of national constitutional systems and traditions.”

Faris Kocan, a foreign policy analyst at the Center of International Relations in Ljubljana, said Slovenia’s presidency is an important test for the EU because of rising undemocratic tendencies in Slovenia, Hungary and Poland.

“If we see the priorities of the Slovenian presidency, you can see that they are in line with the European Union — resilience, the economic recovery, digital transformation and green technologies,” he said.

“But, what is this ‘European way of life’ promoted by Slovenia’s presidency? ... Are those tolerance, human rights and liberties, or are those values of past times and undemocratic regimes?” Kocan asked.

At a presidency event in Ljubljana over the weekend, European Council President Charles Michel said only that the EU “is founded on democratic values, values of freedom, of the state of law because that’s the best guarantee to ensure the dignity of all.”

“Diversity, tolerance and respect are strengths, never weaknesses,” he said.

Thousands of people rallied in Slovenia earlier this month, demanding that the government resign and an early election be held over what they said were eroding democratic standards.

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