Wednesday evening’s European Parliament plenary debate on the Rule of Law in Slovenia had the potential to embarrass the current holder of the European Council’s presidency.
But with the government in Ljubljana moving on two key grievances just before, it was arguably able to avoid the worst.
Last week, it finally nominated its two delegated members for the new European Public Prosecutors Office (EPPO) – the five-month delay in doing so having been the main reason officially for the European Parliament’s debate being scheduled - and it unblocked the budget for the republic’s news agency STA, with very little time to spare before it would have collapsed for lack of funds.
In fact, it was earlier on Wednesday, that the EPPO announced its confirmation of the two Slovenian prosecutors for their five-year term, much to the relief and appreciation of legislators and European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders who participated in the debate.
A sign that perhaps Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša had made those decisions somewhat grudgingly – having blocked the initial EPPO nominees personally in May – was that he called them ‘temporary’ nominations, pending planned judicial reforms which would possibly alter the nomination process.
Janša did not, as was at some point suggested, attend the plenary debate, and his representative, Foreign Affairs Minister Anže Logar, made no mention of this, but it was not overlooked by several EU legislators, mostly on the left, but also the chair of the Budgetary Control (CONT) Committee, Monika Hohlmeier (DE, EPP) felt the need to comment:“The process in which the [EPPO] nominations took place was perhaps not ideal, and was, in fact, not right, but I hope that the Slovenian delegates are the permanent ones, and that the issue is now fully resolved.”
“The process in which the [EPPO] nominations took place was perhaps not ideal, and was, in fact, not right, but I hope that the Slovenian delegates are the permanent ones, and that the issue is now fully resolved" Monika Hohlmeier (DE, EPP), Chair of the Budgetary Control (CONT) Committee
On the issue of the finally funded STA news agency, Commissioner Reynders, welcomed the move, saying that the EU Executive would “continue to monitor the situation closely”.
But the issue that caused the greatest controversy was the official visit paid to Slovenia by a delegation of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee in October.
All delegation members participated in the debate, and a picture of two entrenched camps emerged, the disproportionally smaller one consisting of the EPP and ID national delegations.
The EPP Group had, in what many observers called an unusual move, nominated Slovenian MEP Romana Tomc, a member of the Prime Minister’s party, to inquire about the Rule of Law in her home country.
Tomc had denounced the delegation’s report as “not credible” even before it was published last week, and, in particular, pointed to the fact that a member of Slovenian Socialist delegation leader Tanja Fajon’s office had contributed to the editing of it, and therefore, she claimed, had manipulated it.
Fajon had issued a statement responding to the allegations last Friday, in which she explained that “the draft report was prepared by the LIBE Committee and then, as usual, forwarded to the political groups for negotiation… Ms Fajon has made purely grammatical corrections and corrected the misspelling of a number of names of members representing a majority in the National Assembly”.
"Romana Tomc is trying to undermine the credibility of a report that is highly critical of the situation in Slovenia and the responsibility of the government" Tanja Fajon, Slovenian Socialist delegation leader in the European Parliament
"Romana Tomc is trying to undermine the credibility of a report that is highly critical of the situation in Slovenia and the responsibility of the government. This report is unfortunately a reflection of the actual state of democracy that we are all experiencing, and which is not only pointed out by the European Parliament, but also by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, the European Commission, Reporters Without Borders, the European Union of Journalists and others”.
Fajon’s statement continued, “The State of Democracy report is deeply unfavourable to the ruling party. Romana Tomc's sole purpose is to divert attention and to compromise the content of the report. This is what Romana Tomc has been trying to achieve all along”.
However, Tomc repeated her allegations in the debate, and accused her political opponents of “abusing Parliament for internal political strife in Slovenia”.
The deterioration of public debate in Slovenia was highlighted by almost all other LIBE delegation members. Flemish nationalist member Assita Kanko (BE) who had represented the ECR Group in Ljubljiana commented: “I saw a beautiful country with an ugly political debate. Leaders of national institutions told us that they were able to do their work independently and without fear. I believe them. Journalists and NGOs told us they were under attack from many sides. I believe them as well.”
S&D delegation member Cyrus Engerer, argued that dialogue was essential in upholding the core values “we all agreed to when we joined the European project”, being able, despite all differences “to sit together, speak to each other and understand where we are coming from and what we want to achieve”.
This is what he wanted from the mission, the Maltese Socialist reported, but “unfortunately, we were met with empty chairs” on behalf of the government.
“I saw a beautiful country with an ugly political debate. Leaders of national institutions told us that they were able to do their work independently and without fear. I believe them. Journalists and NGOs told us they were under attack from many sides. I believe them as well” Belgian ECR Group MEP Assita Kanko
Other delegation members recalled the fact that Prime Minister Janša had cancelled an appointment with the delegation at the last minute and had instead mocked them on his favourite social media platform.
The Green/EFA Group’s delegate Tineke Strik (NL) commented: “Janša’s disdain and embarrassing behaviour towards the European Parliament perfectly mirrors the problems he’s causing at home”, pointing, as one example, to the government’s continued refusal to respect rulings of the country’s Supreme Court, like its prohibition of the collective expulsions of migrants.
Mikuláš Peksa (CZ, Greens/EFA) who represented the CONT committee in the delegation, said he witnessed “a very high level of pressure on watchdog institutions and civil society organisations: the government is cutting funds, initiating intimidation lawsuits” – a.k.a. SLAPPs – “and verbally attacking anyone who dares to investigate or criticise its actions”.
To the far right and the Slovenian government, further monitoring of the Rule of Law situation, now that the EPPO and STA issues have been resolved, amounts to “a tax-financed defamation of a conservative government”, as ID Group delegation member Nicolaus Fest (DE) put it.
A resolution on the Rule of Law situation in Slovenia will be voted on at next month’s Strasbourg plenary session.