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Slovenian Intellectuals’ Reflections On The Future Of The European Union

Tuesday’s formal meeting of the Committee on European Union Affairs brought together a number of important reflections. Speeches by the honourable speakers, MP Franc Breznik, Professor Dr Verica Trstenjak, Professor Dr Ernest Petrič and MP Janez Janša, underlined the importance of the European Union for Slovenia. However, there was also criticism of Slovenia’s foreign policy.

The opening speech was delivered by the President of the Committee on EU Affairs and candidate for the position of Member of the European Parliament, Franc Breznik, who reiterated that the European Union was not just an economic opportunity for Slovenia, but a return to the family of nations “bound by the values of respect for human rights, fundamental political freedoms, pluralism and democracy. All of which were taken away from us, or even violated, in totalitarian Yugoslavia.”

MP Breznik believes that the European Union must start to act more strategically and in line with its long-term plans, with the aim of achieving the goal set by the visionaries of the European Union: “A Europe that is free, whole and at peace with itself and, above all, with its neighbours. This must be followed by the common goals of a real green transition and a digital transition to a community that protects its external borders and, above all, its food self-sufficiency,” he said.

“As President of the Committee on European Union Affairs, I have realised that, despite a few missed opportunities, Slovenians have come to understand that as the homeland of our homelands, it strengthens our national entities, our knowledge and also our language within it. Joining as a full member has helped us to establish ourselves as a credible partner on the political map; however, we are not sufficiently aware that we are not only Slovenian citizens, but also European citizens. The best way to predict the future of the European Union is to actively co-create it,” noted Breznik.

Verica Trstenjak: Slovenia is no longer a student

The next speaker was Professor Dr Verica Trstenjak, former Advocate General of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and Judge at the General Court of the European Union. “This is the European Union, it let us be proud Slovenians, but at the same time Europeans. It lets us keep our individuality. It lets us keep the Slovenian language, and also the Slovenian potica. It lets us preserve the diversity of unity.”

She also highlighted some shortcomings of Slovenian representatives in Brussels, who were not successful in protecting Slovenian interests. She blamed them for this, not the European Union.

“Did it also take away Tokaj, Teran, or did it allow Kras prosciutto to be made from the meat of Hungarian pigs? We negotiated all this ourselves, or overlooked our neighbours, who may have beaten us to it, and if we negotiated badly, we are to blame for the situation. What did we get? Just a protected Slovenian potica, higher wages,” she wondered.

As she further explained, we got much more. “What unites the EU is human rights. Democracy, the rule of law, justice, solidarity, pluralism.”

Slovenia, however, can do much more. “We can do a lot on our own. We can increase productivity, we can increase value added, we can create a stimulative tax environment. Our wages are not set by the EU, they are set by us, by our work, by our competitiveness.”

She still sees the European Union as a necessary alliance of states and peoples, especially at a time when war is raging on its borders. “I used to say, let’s keep the EU in our heads and Slovenia in our hearts. Today, I would say, let’s also have the European Union in our hearts, but Slovenia as our homeland,” she concluded.

Ernest Petrič: Is Slovenia still the best student?

Professor Dr Ernest Petrič, former politician, ambassador, constitutional court judge and active professor, then took the podium at the National Assembly. He began by recalling the historical development of the Slovenian nation since its entry into Western civilisation, which is described in the language in the book “The Baptism on the Savica” (“Krst pri Savici”). “By joining the European Union, NATO and, before that, the United Nations, Slovenia completed a long journey that began some 1,500 years ago,” he said, adding that by joining the European communities and NATO, Slovenia had realised a vital national interest. He stressed that NATO is a guarantee of our security.

“The EU, NATO, the United Nations, this is what made us a country in the legal, full sense of the word. We can be proud of that. We can all be proud that we live in a time when our nation has achieved this,” Petrič said.

He argued that, at the moment, he knows nothing better than Western civilisation, because no other civilisation offers so much freedom, social justice, human rights, material well-being, so many opportunities for people to fulfil themselves. “It is also in our hands to contribute to the survival, preservation and further development of this civilisation for the benefit of our people,” he warned.

He recalled that Slovenia was “the best candidate” before joining the EU. We were the most developed, and we also gained our independence in a legal way, with the plebiscite and the concept of a constitution. Slovenia was also ready to cooperate and to make many compromises. It was ready to take its economy from the Yugoslav to the global framework.

To conclude his speech, Dr Petrič asked himself whether we are still such a successful student. “Why are we not even more successful than we currently are? My first impression is that we lack knowledge. Sometimes we don’t know how to run a country,” he was sharp. “We don’t have enough people who are capable of running the various subsystems, of running the country, our Republic of Slovenia. Even the ones we do have, we sometimes hold them back, and they get very scared. We do not know how to nurture a culture of knowledge, a culture of competence. This is one of the reasons why we are doing worse than we could.”

Slovenia also has a problem in its understanding of democracy. “Somehow, diversity bothers us. We should understand diversity as an opportunity to confront ideas, to talk, to agree, to argue, and finally to find the best solutions in the confrontation of arguments. For a small nation, this is especially important.”

A critique of exclusion policies

This will be even more important in the years to come. Turbulent times lie ahead, dictated by China’s rise to global power, and in this case, in particular, political maturity would be of paramount importance. “Our destiny is in our own hands. And that requires a shared responsibility for our country. That may even be the key.”

In conclusion, he underlined his opposition to the policy of exclusion. “This is not appropriate for a modern country, at the level of civilisation of the Republic of Slovenia.”

Janez Janša: The European Union must focus on key things

The last speaker was Janez Janša, former Prime Minister in several mandates and President of the Slovenian Democratic Party (Slovenska demokratska stranka – SDS). He reminded those gathered at the meeting of the time when the European Union was founded. “It was a decision that brought a lot of good to generations of Europeans in the decades that followed. Peace, prosperity, which those of us who were not yet in the EU looked upon with great envy and great lust.”

At that time, the idea of the European Union was very idealised. In Slovenia, we imagined it as an environment where everything was already neatly in place. A society of nations where you step in, accept the EU standards, and then everything runs “by itself”. This view persisted for a long time but began to erode with the rejection of the EU constitutional treaty, which was rejected in referendums in some of the big EU countries. “We didn’t believe it was possible, because all we saw before us was an ideal picture,” he recalled. He also recalled the time when Slovenia first held the presidency of the Council of the European Union and the European Council – a time of the so-called “golden age,” when many thought that the EU, with its economic and demographic strength, would have a decisive influence on global standards.

Then came a period of crises. The political crisis was overcome with the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty. The political crisis was followed by the economic and financial crisis, then by the Covid-19 pandemic, and then by the Russian aggression against Ukraine, which brought war to the doorsteps of the European Union. “These crises followed one another. There has been very little calm sailing after 2008 or 2009. We were also dealt a strategic blow with the departure of the UK from the EU. Until then, the EU was just expanding, but then it suddenly shrank for one very large country –with nuclear power, who was a permanent member of the Security Council,” he pointed out.

He also highlighted the EU’s successes, including the joint control of the Covid-19 virus, which Slovenia also made good use of.

A time for self-examination

On the 20th anniversary of Slovenia’s accession to the European Union, there must also be a much-needed self-examination. “There have been many challenges. When we take stock of this time in Slovenia after the accession, we can look at it as a glass half full or half empty,” he reflected.

“In 20 years, Slovenia has caught up with some of the countries that joined the EU earlier. They have not made the best use of this time, or they have developed more slowly than we have. Here, we see that some of our potential has been used well. But then we also see that countries that joined the EU at the same time as us, which were far behind us in terms of purchasing power per capita, are now somewhere around where Slovenia is, or even ahead of us. This means that the opportunities were greater than we were able to seize. After 20 years, we have to ask ourselves why we did not take advantage of these opportunities and why Slovenia was not able to breathe with full lungs during this time,” said Janša.

No one idealises the EU anymore

Member states of the European Union no longer idealise it. As Janša explained it, this is due to the reality that the “new members,” those who joined the EU 20 years ago, are more willing to take responsibility for the development of the EU as a whole. “The fact is that Slovenia, as not the largest member of the EU, has many of the same competences as the largest members. It must be ready to take on responsibilities accordingly.”

These responsibilities are “not only for ourselves, but also for how we can build together from the EU something that was the basic idea of the founding fathers of the EU: an area of peace and prosperity that will protect Europeans from external threats and at the same time allow them to develop their potential as individuals and as sovereign nations.” He warns that the EU will face major challenges in the next five years, perhaps even greater than when the EU was founded.

“The European Union must focus on key things in the meantime. There are a number of them. It needs to move away from discussions on how to add things to the European Treaties on which there is no consensus. It is certainly necessary to concentrate on the issue of security and the issue of enlargement. The two issues are closely interlinked. For ten years or so, the issue of enlargement has been put on the back burner. There was a majority belief that the EU should first be deepened, the EU institutions reformed, made more effective, and then we should move on to enlargement. This time, in retrospect, has proved that if the EU, as a place of peace and prosperity, is not expanding, someone else is. Enlarging someone else does not bring more security and more guarantees for security and prosperity on the European continent.”

Slovenia must take responsibility

Janša also said the following regarding Slovenia: “We are facing a time when we need to let go of all idealistic notions of how others will take care of you. To take on the responsibility that comes with memberships in large international organisations, including the EU, which is a unique project. In a sense, a miracle of God, where a large number of countries – with very different views – usually reach an agreement and compromise in the end. But here, all members must add value and shoulder their share of responsibility. Slovenians will have to ask themselves how to make the best use of the next 20 years in an external environment that is more favourable to our nation than at any time in history.”

Ž. K.

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