19th Apr 2021

EU institutions brace for impact of Slovenia's Janša

Last Friday (26 March), at a hearing in the European Parliament, Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša was supposed to lay out his response to criticisms that media in his country is increasingly under attack - including by him, personally.

He was allocated 15 minutes. But instead, he insisted on playing a video.

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Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld, who chaired the discussion of the parliament's Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group said it was not possible due to technical limitations - but also because viewing videos was not part of the process.

Janša accused in 't Veld of censoring him, and shortly after he disconnected from the meeting.

In 't Veld said it was not "appropriate" to send the video the moment the meeting starts, when it is web-streamed, "it is a matter of courtesy, you don't deal with each other this way".

"It is truly unfortunate that Sophie in 't Veld, who supposed to monitor media freedom in the EU, despite prior agreement censored the broadcast of a video that highlights problems with media freedom and attacks on journalists in Slovenia," Janša tweeted later.

"Slovenia owes absolutely nothing to Brussels," he later tweeted in response to liberal Renew group leader, Romanian MEP Dacian Cioloș.

"Therefore, overpaid bureaucrats who were born into prosperity will not preach to us about freedom and democracy. Nor will we ever agree to be censored by self-proclaimed ombudsmen. We did not allow Milosevic to do that, nor will we allow Sophie in 't Veld and Dacian Cioloș to do so," Janša tweeted, referring to the late Serbian president accused of crimes against humanity.

Twitter spats

Such a public fall-out between a prime minister of an EU country and an MEP is rare. But Janša's erratic outbursts on Twitter, including attacking journalists, are a well-known phenomenon in Brussels.

But as Slovenia takes over the EU's rotating presidency in July, Janša will get a much bigger European platform.

"Yes, we are concerned about the recent political developments in Slovenia. Prime minister Janez Janša's attacks on journalists and MEPs are truly unacceptable," Cioloș told EUobserver.

"This is more worrying as Slovenia will hold the rotating presidency of the EU in three months. As such, it will have to defend the values and principles on which the European Union is founded. The latest statements by the Slovenian prime minister are not reassuring in this respect. 2021 is not a 'business-as-usual' year," Cioloș said.

He added that "we will be vigilant and determined to prepare this presidency as well as possible with the Slovenian authorities".

In Brussels, EU officials talk with muted nervousness about the prospect of Janša at the helm for six months - pointing out that in practice there is not much direct impact a prime minister has on the EU presidency.

Prime ministers usually hold a joint press conference with top EU officials at the beginning and at the end of the presidency and hold a debate with MEPs during the parliament's plenary.

Ministers from the presidency country run the show in the council, and make sure legislative files are pushed.

'Damage control'

"He [Janša] doesn't really have a role in the council formations, and in the European Council he is one of the 27," an EU diplomat said, referring to the summit of EU leaders.

"He would go to the European Parliament to present the presidency's program, but it is also not a law of God that he needs to be very visible," the diplomat said, adding: "If the presidency is run here in Brussels, with ministers in the council formation and the coalition government in place, it might just work out."

"There will be damage control," Eric Maurice of the Robert Schuman Foundation, a think tank, said.

Maurice, however, concurred that the PM's personal influence should not be overestimated in decision-making.

"The worst thing he can do is to slow down files and poison the atmosphere with this communication," he added.

"There is the question of message. For six months, Janša can present himself as the president of the EU, even if it is not true, but symbolically, this kind of disruptive communication would be harmful to the EU as far as public perception goes," Maurice added.

Maurice warned it was important that institutional players be clear Janša is not the voice of the EU.

'No comment'

Inside the EU Commission headquarters, informally, there is talk on how to handle the Slovenian PM, a source said.

"We have a serious issue," said one EU official, adding that "it is high time the commission to think about how they are going to act during the presidency".

Public communication seems to be the main tool the commission has - but it has been reluctant to use it so far.

The commission said it did not want to address Janša's lashing out against MEPs.

"President von der Leyen prefers to undertake a constructive and respectful dialogue between politicians and all partners, we don't want to comment on specific exchanges between the Slovene prime minister and MEPs," commission spokesperson Dana Spinant said earlier this week.

Von der Leyen and Janša in fact spoke last Thursday, in preparation for the presidency.

The issue of media freedom was discussed between the two, with von der Leyen suggesting Janša should "inform his ministers to collaborate with the commission on the issue", a commission spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, some solidarity is also at play among officials.

"There is a risk for considerable damage - but it is more a risk for damage for the reputation of Slovenia rather than an EU train wreck," the EU diplomat said.

"There is a lot of pity for our Slovenians colleagues here [in Brussels]," the diplomat added.

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