Infrastructure connections and rail networks show the increased importance of linking the Visegrad Group with its Central European neighbour Slovenia. How are relations developing with a closely integrated EU member state that sits at the crossroads of past and present trade routes?
Anže Logar is Minister of Foreign Affairs in the government of Prime Minister Janez Janša since the beginning of this year. Previously, he was an elected member of the Slovenian Parliament during 2014 and 2020. He also served as the official spokesperson of the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2008.
Michał Potocki: What would you say about the most important common interests between Poland and Slovenia?
Anže Logar: Slovenia and Poland are partnering countries. We have no open issues that would hinder our cooperation. Especially in this post-COVID-19 period, economic cooperation will be the best policy in regaining the trust of our fellow citizens to the EU project.
Poland is our eighth most important trade partner. I cannot see any reason we could not enhance this cooperation even further as we have very balanced trade. We have something to offer, for example, the transport of goods via our port of Koper. Poland is a big market with a robust economy. There is a big chance for the improvement of our bilateral cooperation. The last EU summit proves that together we can achieve more than one alone.
Wojciech Przybylski: What about Slovenia’s involvement in the Three Seas Initiative?
Anže Logar: The Three Seas Initiative (TSI) can have major results in the future. There are 12 member states, it represents 28 per cent of the area of the European Union, 22 per cent of its population but only ten per cent of EU gross domestic product. Money always moves into environments that provide a higher margin of manoeuvre to improve.
We can achieve huge export growth in comparison to other markets. This part of the EU is lagging behind in infrastructure projects. And this initiative offers good engine for fostering the construction of transnational infrastructure projects that will bear fruit in foreseeable future.
Michał Potocki: Which aspects of the Three Seas Initiative do you feel are the most important? During the last summit, the Americans supported this initiative, especially because of an energy component that could enhance multilateral connections.
Anže Logar: Slovenia stands, for example, for faster train connections. We want to reconnect the North-South route with a modern train connection to the port of Koper. It can become an excellent hub for this part of the EU.
Another issue is 5G technology. Many countries of the TSI have more or less the same view on the way how to safeguard this mobile technology in the next decades. This gives us a common ground to find a solution that would safely enhance the speed of our telecommunication. The one who will launch it sooner will have more time to develop the infrastructure.
If you have an initiative that functions well, it can improve relations among decision-makers. And if there are more relations, there are more projects that can be agreed. One leads to another.
Michał Potocki: You have mentioned the last EU summit. One of the biggest issues of this summit was a question whether to connect the EU financing with the rule of law. What is your point of view?
Anže Logar: We are strong supporters of the rule of law. We think that it is one of the core values of the European Union and it is one of the reasons why our countries joined the EU. We were deprived of the rule of law during the communist era.
In Slovenia, public trust in the judiciary system is incredibly low; only 25 per cent of our population trusts in it. This is a disastrous result. For member states where there has been hardly any problem in judicial system since long time ago, and where the system has been considered independent and unbiased, it is much more difficult to understand why the trust in the judicial branch of power is so low in countries that have a communist background.
So, if we have one procedure that puts everything on the same denominator in a just and transparent manner – in that case, yes, we can talk about linking funding with the rule of law. At the same time, we need to understand the difference between us. So, for the time being, we do not have such an instrument in practice.
Wojciech Przybylski: This issue is being scrutinised in Poland. Hence, this conditionality was introduced into the political and diplomatic discourse on the EU level. Do you see that this is going to be a challenge for Slovenia? The rule of law in the European Union relates to a broad area – not only the judiciary but all aspects including media. Poland and Hungary are uncomfortable with this packaging of several things.
Anže Logar: I think they are uncomfortable with conditionality. In Slovenia, it is customary not to comment on a judicial verdict until it is final. And in the case of Poland and Hungary, the outcome of the Article 7 (1) procedure is not final yet. If it is not final, the same rules should apply to that. And until it is not final, it is hard to introduce this conditionality, because it gives you quite some margin of manoeuvre for politically interpreting this issue.
In Slovenia, for example, we have 30 years of democracy. We used our EU negotiation process for developing our society, its subsystems and as well our judiciary system. But reforming process in a certain area was not sufficient. And one of the consequences of that is lower trust in our judicial system. The inefficiency of the judicial branch of power is evident to the average citizen.
For example, we have had banking fraud on a large scale in Slovenia from 2007 to 2011. Until now, even though it was expensive for taxpayers – almost half of the yearly state budget – but no one was prosecuted over this fraud. No banker was jailed for that reason. Our citizens compare this with Iceland, where they concluded the investigation on banking fraud in three years! For citizens, it is hard to trust in the system if one had to pay from his pocket to cover the shortfall, about 2,500 euros per person!
So that is why we in Slovenia have to do a lot regarding the rule of law. And it is hard for us to observe very slow progress. That is why we want to have a discussion on the rule of law within the European Union. But we want to have a just, transparent and open dialogue on how to enhance the rule of law in the EU member states, of course, especially in Slovenia.
And when I explained this background in a cover letter to European Commissioner Didier Reynders – when I said that we have certain problems in our judiciary system, that a lot of judgements were seized by the European Court of Human Rights or fell through in the Constitutional Court, or that we have many cases which failed under the statute of limitation and for that reason trust in the judicial branch is so low – I received a criminal complaint against me for smearing my country abroad.
Now, the public state prosecutor is dealing with the case against me based on an accusation of a smear campaign against Slovenia. This is absurd. The prosecutor should withdraw the claim immediately. But no, they are continuing the process. Each particular country has its own, different problem regarding the judicial branch of power. And what is the common denominator to judge in a just manner this issue? Unless we have a final conclusion, this might be an area of politicisation, do you agree?
Wojciech Przybylski: Let us go back to the issue of the EU budget and touch up the COVID19 crisis. What is the situation in Slovenia considering that in the region, it was very difficult?
Anže Logar: Our Western neighbour Italy was under severe tragedy at the time of the first wave of the pandemic. We were witnessing every day what was happening there. We were trying to help, but we could hardly do anything. Our fellow citizens every day witnessed what this pandemic could do to them. So they were very cautious. We had very strict and well-calibrated measures.
Therefore, we were able to stay more or less on the safe side with no major outbursts. And our health sector succeeded to handle the pressure related to infections. Now, when the first wave was over – Slovenia was the first country to call off the epidemic in May. However, we witnessed a second outburst in the Western Balkans. We immediately reacted. We put countries of the Western Balkans except for Croatia on the so-called red list, restricting border crossings.
Michał Potocki: Slovenia is quite highly interconnected with the Italian economy, which is also very dramatically challenged by the economic impact of COVID-19? How do you deal with it?
Anže Logar: We are all affected. During the first outburst of COVID-19, we kept our industry open and functioning. We introduced specific measures like masks, disinfection and safe distances in the production lines, but manufacturing went on. This put us in a more favourable position in comparison to other countries that completely ceased the production.
Therefore, our connections with the German and Italian markets were not so severely damaged as with other, more distant markets. Since transport was heavily affected, our trade suffered as well but today it is better. In the context of the EU summit that succeeded to agree on the EU future budget and the recovery fund, we expect a robust bounce back.
We have faith in our future economic development. In our case, the important tourism sector was heavily affected. That is why we introduced special measures. Every citizen who is over 18 years old, received 200 euros and every citizen who is under 18 years old, received a 50 euros voucher to spend it on holidays in Slovenia. People are massively using this instrument and the overall drop in the tourism sector is not as significant as it is the case of our neighbours.
Wojciech Przybylski: Poland is planning a similar measure.
Anže Logar There is no need, you can come to Slovenia [laughs].
Wojciech Przybylski: What about other sectors of the economy such as the advertising market and the press. There is quite a lot of reporting about government plans for reforms that create tensions with the media.
Anže Logar: I do trust in a very open debate, the impartiality of media and having critical distance. But I am coming from the political party that was criticised in the media as much in government as to when we were in the opposition. Perhaps, that is a bit awkward?
Wojciech Przybylski: So, you say that the intention of the government is to make media more pluralistic? But why do you want to cut funding for the public media?
Anže Logar: Media pluralism is a good course, isn’t it? I think that the public broadcaster should be impartial. If every household pays a fee for the national television, then it should receive measured information. This is the prerequisite for the public broadcaster. It should also demonstrate efficiency.
For example, the Polish public television (TVP) has 2,700 employees for 40 million Polish citizens. Do you know that Slovenian television for two million inhabitants has more or less the same number of employees? The budget of TVP is five times bigger – with the same number of people it produces five times more than Slovenian national broadcaster. From a taxpayers’ perspective, you can hardly defend such discrepancy in comparison to other national televisions.
The new legislative proposal (in another ministry portfolio) is now part of the public debate. It puts forward a proposal to redistribute part of the money from the public TV to a fund for media pluralism.
Apparently, some media, especially those coming from the national broadcaster, have a different opinion about that and they make a big noise. But it is part of a normal parliamentary debate and after the public debate we will have a discussion in the parliament, then an agreed legislative proposal will be adopted.
Michał Potocki: This argument has been also used in Poland. They declare to make the media more pluralistic and impartial. And in fact, the effect of this intervention made the Polish television one of the most biased media. So there are always concerns when the government wants to intervene in public media.
Anže Logar: I fully trust in the parliamentary democratic procedure and I cannot speculate what will happen before the full democratic procedure is concluded – the public debate and the parliamentary process. So there will be a lot of water poured on this discussion in the near future. But this government has always been in favour of just, transparent and impartial media in Slovenia.
Michał Potocki: Let me ask about the Western Balkans, their plans and potential for European integration. There has been an issue about starting the negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. It has been promised to them, but it has been also blocked for some months by the French and the Danes. This resulted even in some political skirmishes in North Macedonia. More broadly, what is Slovenia’s perspective on the Western Balkans and their prospect for EU integration?
Anže Logar Slovenia has always been an ardent supporter of the EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. We are coming from this part of the world and this is why we raise this point on all EU levels. Finally, we are happy that what was promised to those countries and what was fulfilled in the end.
Now, it is on the shoulders of North Macedonia and Albania to do their part. They have incentives to further reform their institutions. One shall mention as well that new funds are available under European Commissioner Oliver Varhélyi for the Eastern Partnership and for the Western Balkans in addition to Pre-Accession Assistance, to enhance connectivity in the areas of transport and energy.
The key element to turns things around is economic stability. If you become richer, you want to improve other areas as well as the judiciary system in order to get closer to the European Union. There is a mutual gain in that. In Serbia, we see the EU negotiation process in a standstill, and they need some economic incentive to move further. It is the same case for North Macedonia and for Albania.
Michał Potocki: How about Russia and the debate in the EU on the continuation of sanctions?
Anže Logar: If there is no improvement, Slovenia will vote in line with the rest of the European Union members.
A Polish version of this interview is available in Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.