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East-West rift over values as Slovenia assumes EU's presidency

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The European and Slovenian flags flutter ahead of the start of Slovenia's EU presidency in Medvode, Slovenia June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic/File Photo

Amid high tension between east and west over democratic values, the European Union's presidency passed on Thursday (1 July) to Slovenia, led by a nationalist who has a history of crossing swords with the EU executive in debates over democracy, writes Sabine Siebold.

Prime Minister Janez Jansa (pictured), an admirer of former US President Donald Trump and a blunt tweeter, clashed with Brussels over media freedoms in the run-up to the tiny former Yugoslav republic's six-month stint leading the 27-nation bloc.

Jansa, 62, is also close to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose disagreements with western Europe came to an ill-tempered head at a summit last week over a law that bans schools from using materials seen as promoting homosexuality.

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Slovenia's priorities for its Presidency of the Council of the EU include bolstering Europe's post-pandemic recovery, and its resilience, strategic autonomy and rule of law.

But its turn at the helm from 1 July - setting the agenda of inter-government meetings and representing the EU in some international forums - may also put a spotlight on the growing rift within the bloc over its common values.

In western capitals, the increasingly assertive coalition of eastern leaders is being watched with concern.

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At last week's summit, where Jansa and Poland's prime minister were reportedly the only leaders to back Orban on 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 the LGBT debate was "a sincere exchange of views that, at times, got very heated" but calmed down once the facts were clarified. He said he did not think it would cause any unnecessary new divisions.

"Slovenia and many other countries do not want to be part of any new divisions in Europe. There were enough of those. We have joined the EU to become united, not divided," he said.

Some academics believe 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 that the whole attitude of this alignment is very anti-European. It shows signs of an establishment of some sort of a new Iron Curtain," said Marko Milosavljevic, a professor of journalism and media policy at the university of Ljubljana.

Jansa, who has also backed Poland in its battle with the EU's ruling commission over Warsaw's reforms of the judiciary, said the commission could sort out any problems that arose with any law in a member state.

"In the end, we always get a legally-binding decision that we must comply with," he said at last week's summit.

Georg Riekeles, associate director of the European Policy Centre think tank, noted the latest report of the NGO Freedom House ranks Slovenia above Italy, Spain, France and Germany in terms of political rights and civil liberties.

Its presidency will nevertheless focus minds on these issues, Riekeles said.

"This is something that the Slovenian presidency and Prime Minister Jansa have to take seriously," he said. "In the context of the presidency, there is no avoiding of scrutiny on the issue of effective democratic rights, the respect of the rule of law."

The EU executive, the European Commission, recently accused Poland, Hungary and Slovenia of undermining media freedoms, accusing Jansa of smearing a journalist who had reported on efforts to overhaul his country's national press agency.

Jansa rejected accusations that he had bullied the reporter.

EU Presidency

What Slovenian MEPs expect from their country's Council presidency

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Slovenia took over the rotating presidency of the Council on 1 July. Find out what Slovenian MEPs expect during their country’s turn at the helm, EU affairs.

Slovenia takes over the presidency of the Council of the European Union from Portugal. The focus will be on facilitating the EU’s recovery and making it more resilient.

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša and the Slovenian government discussed the presidency programme with David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament, and the political groups leaders on 26 May. "The Slovenian Presidency comes at a critical moment for Europe, as we look to rebuild our Union after the Covid-19 pandemic," said Sassoli.

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Together. Resilient. Europe.

In addition to the recovery, Slovenia will work on the following issues:

European Health Union

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"The presidency arrives at a strategically very important time. The European union faces many challenges, from recovery after the corona crisis to the green and digital transformation of the economy, preserving European social model and security issues,” said Romana Tomc (EPP). Our big responsibility as the presiding country is to actively participate in these questions about the future of the EU." She added: "This is also an opportunity for our voice and our opinion to be heard."

Tanja Fajon (S&D) expects the Slovenian presidency to advocate for the rule of law, for a European perspective for Western Balkan countries, as well as for a high level of consensus when adopting measures to support the EU's economic and social recovery after the health crisis and the green transition. She added that she "definitely expects a direction that will reaffirm Slovenia's position and reputation as an ally and firm supporter of a unified EU of solidarity".

Klemen Grošelj (Renew Europe) was critical of some of the government’s recent measures, but said he expected the Slovenian presidency to “follow the values and principles on which the EU is based,” adding: “ I wish that Slovenia would be, as it used to, a defender and promoter of the principles and values of the rule of law, freedom of the media, independent judiciary and justice, and a country of vibrant democratic dialogue with the non-governmental sector and civil society.”

This is Slovenia's second time at the helm of the Council. It first took the chair in 2008. France will take over on 1 January 2022.

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EU Presidency

College travels to Ljubljana to mark the beginning of the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the EU

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Today (1 July) the College of Commissioners will travel to Slovenia on the first day of the country's presidency of the Council. The members of the College will meet in the morning their counterparts of the Slovenian government in thematic clusters. This session will be followed by a working lunch of the College and the Slovenian Government hosted by the Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Janša. After the lunch, President von der Leyen and Prime Minister Janša will hold a joint press conference. Later, the College will meet the President of the National Assembly, Igor Zorčič and will discuss in thematic cluster with the members of the Assembly. President von der Leyen will also meet the President of Slovenia, Borut Pahor. In the evening, the College will participate in a cultural event in Bled Island, at which President von der Leyen will deliver an introductory speech. The press conference and the speech at the cultural event will be broadcast live on EbS+.

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Portuguese Council presidency: What MEPs expect

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Portugal took over the rotating Council Presidency on 1 January 2021, amidst a health and economic crisis. But what are the Portuguese MEPs’ expectations?

As Europeans continue to face the unprecedented socioeconomic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Portugal takes over the six-month presidency of the Council of the EU determined to prioritise recovery.

Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa unveiled the programme of its presidency during a remote press conference with European Parliament President, David Sassoli, held on 2 December 2020.

Given the current challenging times, Portugal is committed to promoting a resilient, social, green, digital and global Europe. The slogan of the new presidency is "Time to deliver: a fair, green and digital recovery”.

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It will also have to continue work on some of the priorities of the previous German presidency: the future of EU-UK relations, progress on climate action, the EU’s long term budget and the COVID recovery plan.

Portuguese MEPs were asked about their expectations and their views on the priorities put forward by the new Presidency.

According to Paulo Rangel (EPP), the three priorities that will dominate the agenda of the presidency are the “launch of the recovery fund, the vaccination strategy and future EU-UK relations - with or without deal”. He underlines the importance of the social pillar, which “should focus more on health”, and of the EU-India summit. The Conference on the Future of Europe and the new strategy for Schengen along with the EU Migration Pact “deserve more attention” from the presidency, he added.

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Portugal is “combining social and climate agendas with the digital transition as engines of the European Union's resilience and recovery,” said Carlos Zorrinho (S&D). Lisbon “is also committed to repositioning the EU as a multilateral power, namely through the summits with Africa and India,” he said. Referring to “an increased uncertainty” led by the pandemic and Brexit, Zorrinho sees the Portuguese presidency as “a unique opportunity for the EU to rediscover itself and its founding principles”.

Francisco Guerreiro (Greens/EFA) said that Portugal’spPresidency coincides with “the greatest global crisis ever – the one related to the rampant destruction of biodiversity”. In his view, one of the biggest challenges is the completion of the negotiations for the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which retains a major share of the EU budget. “We do not have expectations that there will be any structural changes to the CAP capable of accomplishing the European Green Deal and respecting the ' Farm to Fork' strategy or [with regard] to the preservation of biodiversity,” he said.

Marisa Matias (Greens/EFA) said that “social Europe, the green transition and the digital transition are the right priorities and in line with the challenges” currently being faced by the EU. However, she addedthat “Europe is experiencing moments of deep division” and is struggling to provide solutions to the structural challenges. “There are fewer and fewer opportunities to make sense of the European project and none can be missed,” Matias said, adding that she hopes that “the Portuguese presidency will not get lost behind its intentions”.

Portugal is starting its fourth presidency of the EU. On 1 January, it celebrated 35 years since its accession to the EU together with Spain.

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