Amid high tensions between East and West over democratic values, the European Union presidency will pass to Slovenia on Thursday, led by a nationalist who has a history of crossing swords with the EU’s executive in debates on democracy.
Prime Minister Janez Jansa, an admirer of former US President Donald Trump and a blunt tweeter, clashed with Brussels over media freedoms ahead of the small former Yugoslav republic’s six-month leadership at the head of the 27-nation bloc.
Jansa, 62, is also close with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose disagreements with Western Europe came to a head last week at a summit over a law banning schools from using material seen as promoting homosexuality.
Slovenia’s priorities for its presidency of the Council of the EU include strengthening Europe’s recovery from the pandemic, its resilience, strategic autonomy and the rule of law.
But his turn at the helm from July 1 — setting the agenda for intergovernmental meetings and representing the EU in some international fora — could also spotlight the growing divide within the bloc over its common values.
In Western capitals, the increasingly assertive coalition of Eastern leaders is being watched with concern.
At last week’s summit, where Jansa and the Polish prime minister were reportedly the only leaders to support Orban in Hungary’s anti-LGBT law, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of a fundamental “East-West divide”.
“This is not a ‘Viktor Orban problem’ … This is a problem that goes deeper,” he said.
Jansa told reporters at the summit that the LGBT debate was “a heartfelt exchange of views that got very heated at times,” but calmed down when the facts were clarified. He said he didn’t think it would create unnecessary new divisions.
“Slovenia and many other countries do not want to be part of new divisions in Europe. There were enough of them. We joined the EU to be united, not divided,” he said.
Some academics believe that an “Eastern European Union” is emerging based on positions that contradict fundamental EU values such as the rule of law, human rights, media freedom and LGBT rights.
“I think the whole attitude of this alignment is very anti-European. It shows signs of a new Iron Curtain,” said Marko Milosavljevic, professor of journalism and media policy at the University of Ljubljana.
Jansa, who has also supported Poland in its battle with the EU government commission on reforms to the judiciary in Warsaw, said the commission could resolve any problems with a law in a member state.
“In the end we always get a legally binding decision that we have to abide by,” he said at last week’s summit.
Georg Riekeles, associate director of the European Policy Center think tank, noted that the latest report from the NGO Freedom House puts Slovenia ahead of Italy, Spain, France and Germany in terms of political rights and civil liberties.
The presidency will nevertheless focus on these issues, Riekeles said.
“This is something that the Slovenian presidency and Prime Minister Jansa should take seriously,” he said. “In the context of the presidency, there is no escaping the issue of effective democratic rights, respect for the rule of law.”
The EU administration, the European Commission, recently accused Poland, Hungary and Slovenia of undermining media freedoms and accused Jansa of defaming a journalist who had reported on attempts to overhaul his country’s national news agency.
Jansa dismissed allegations that he had bullied the reporter.