For many observers of EU politics, the prospect of Slovenia under its current government holding the rotating presidency of the European Council in the second half of 2021, spelled trouble from the start.
Concerns grew into anxieties in November of last year, when Prime Minister Janez Janša rushed to his favourite means of communication, Twitter, to congratulate Donald Trump on his re-election the day after the election had been held.
He was the only head of government in the world to do so.
Janša’s social media strategy, his fondness of conspiracy theories, his right-wing populism and his constant drive to polarise Slovenian society have, in fact, earned him not only the nickname of “Mini-Trump” but also, referencing the late Yugoslav communist leader, “Marshall Twitto”.
And it was again on Twitter last week where he expressed his animosity towards Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in t’Veld, which dates to an encounter in the European Parliament in March, when Janša was supposed to answer questions at a hearing to which he was remotely connected but wanted to show a video instead. Chairing the meeting, in t’Veld wouldn’t let him on this occasion and he left.
Now in her role as chair of Parliament’s Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group (DRFMG), in t’Veld visited Slovenia with a delegation of MEPs from across the political groups from Wednesday until Friday last week.
A meeting of the delegation with the prime minister was first refused, then scheduled, and then cancelled again. By way of explanation, Janša tweeted on Thursday afternoon, above a press release from the S&D group showing an empty chair and lamenting his unavailability: “Who are you? How many times have you visited a German chancellor, a Dutch PM or a French president? By the way, it’s Netherlands where the last journalist was killed in the #EU. In Slovenia, such attempts were executed only during a regim [sic] of your comrades from @strankaSD”.
“Tasteless tweet by Janez Janša (@JJansaSDS) about MEPs. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms. The government just conveyed this same sentiment to the Slovenian ambassador in The Hague” Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte
The Prime Minister thus managed to offend not only the delegation but the entire Dutch nation.
Shortly afterwards, Janša managed to compound the effect by tweeting a bizarre picture of 13 portraits of MEPs from the last legislature with a picture of billionaire philanthropist and democracy activist George Soros, labelling them “Soros’ puppets in the EP”, with a red arrow pointing at in t’Veld. The pictures also included a portrait of the former European Liberal Party president Hans van Baalen who died earlier this year.
This must have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte who tweeted in response: “Tasteless tweet by Janez Janša (@JJansaSDS) about MEPs. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms. The government just conveyed this same sentiment to the Slovenian ambassador in The Hague.”
By the end of Thursday night, Rutte’s indignation had been shared by many MEPs, Parliament’s president David Sassoli, and European Council President Charles Michel who reminded Janša that “members of the @Europarl_EN should be able to do their work free from any form of pressure”, adding that “mutual respect between EU institutions and within the European Council is the only way forward”.
The Slovenian prime minister’s attendance at this week’s EU Council summit in Brussels will be one to watch.
As for the monitoring mission itself, Sophie in t’Veld, who had not joined in on Thursday’s Twitterstorm, gave a brief overview of the delegation’s observations at a press conference in Ljubljana on Friday.
She noted that public institutions were working well in Slovenia, and not, unlike in other Member States “which I need not name”, being systematically dismantled.
“[What].... has really struck us all is the tone of the public debate. It is striking that members of the government are engaging in a debate which in unfit for a civilised and democratic society” Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in t’Veld
Having stressed that the monitoring mission is “not a tribunal” but part of an ongoing exercise and that it was for Parliament to decide which, if any, actions to take once the full report is made available to the house, in t’Veld turned to the areas of concern.
“One that has really struck us all is the tone of the public debate. It is striking that members of the government are engaging in a debate which in unfit for a civilised and democratic society.”
Polarising society into one part supposedly pitted against another was not only wrong but also dangerous, in t’Veld argued, adding that “that kind of debate (…) sows doubt and distrust not only in public institutions but also between public institutions”.
She went on to list the government’s refusal to fund the national public news agency STA and the ongoing delay in nominating Slovenia’s delegate for the EU’s new public prosecution service (EPPO).
She also encouraged the journalists present to address questions to other members of the delegation, but the press conference’s set up in the EP Ljubljana office made streaming of a widened format of questions and answers impossible.
However, some of them shared their observations on social media, with the ECR Group’s Assita Kanko tweeting: “Slovenia mission: my conclusions for press conf @Europarl_EN: Based on our findings, no structural erosion of rule of law. Institutions are independent & judiciary OK. But tone of public debate is ugly. Everybody calm down, cherish democracy & set right example for our citizens!”
“Slovenia mission: my conclusions for press conf @Europarl_EN: Based on our findings, no structural erosion of rule of law. Institutions are independent & judiciary OK. But tone of public debate is ugly. Everybody calm down, cherish democracy & set right example for our citizens! I recommend a Twitter holiday for the Slovenian political class” Belgian ECR Group MEP Assita Kanko
She added “I recommend a Twitter holiday for the Slovenian political class”.
The centre-right EPP Group was represented by Romana Tomc, a Slovenian member from the prime minister’s party.
She published a Twitter thread on Friday that stressed the fact that the country’s public institutions had been found to work well but complained that “significantly more time was given to guests who criticized the government” and that meetings were not recorded - most are held in camera and not recorded in principle, the chair had explained at the press conference - and didn’t mention any problematic issues.
By contrast, Czech Pirate MEP Mikuláš Peksa, who represented the Committee on Budgetary Control in the delegation, strongly criticised the Slovenian PM’s behaviour:
“Attacks on MEPs in the fact-finding mission regarding #Slovenia by PM @JJansaSDS are outrageous. Our goal is to investigate #ruleoflaw, #mediafreedom and #corruption fairly. Janša should apologise immediately for his conspiracy language”.