By: Milan Zver
Slovenia has taken over the Presidency in rather thankless circumstances. Even if we leave aside the stubborn pandemic and the pressing need for a digital and green transition and increased safety and resilience of the alliance against many foreseeable and unforeseeable threats, there remains a number of challenges in the foreign policy arena where the Union recorded a number of defeats over the last decade. This situation is now facing Slovenia that is taking over foreign policy as part of its Council duties.
During the first Presidency Slovenia was very successful in strengthening Euro-Atlantic cooperation. With the assistance of President in office Janez Janša and President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso Slovenia even hosted a meeting between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, Presidents of the USA and Russia. At the time Janša represented the EU in foreign affairs and took on a decisive role in the foreign policy of the alliance. Things changed after the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty and we got high EU representatives for foreign and security policy. They now carry the greatest responsibility in foreign policy and, as they concurrently also serve as Commission Vice-Presidents, it is also clear that the Commission has appropriated the greatest power. But the Council has not relinquished all of its power. On the contrary, its role has stayed, at least formally, a strategic one.
After the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty the role of the EU as a player on the international stage has reduced substantially. Relations with other countries changed, particularly with the USA and Russia. The latter lost the status of Union partner soon thereafter. Putin’s regime launched a plethora of hostile activities against the EU, including rattling weapons, crypto attacks and espionage. With its actions in the neighboring area Russia “froze” several conflicts and consequentially brought down the eastern partnership strategy that the Union had great hopes for. The current lack of partnership between the EU and the Russian Federation harms both sides. Even before the Presidency Slovenia’s Foreign Minister Anže Logar met with the most experienced Foreign Minister in the world Sergey Lavrov, but of course there is not much chance for relations between the EU and Russia to improve in such a short period of time. They now remain at the lowest level of the past 30 years, and shall remain as such for as long as Vladimir Putin remains the “Czar” of Russia in one form or another.
Soon after the dispute with Russia relations with the USA began to cool as well. I remember the visit of Joe Biden in the European Parliament, then in the role of the Vice-President of the USA. Nice words were said abut a strategic alliance and favorable promises were made, but relations continued to deteriorate. Clinton’s administration decided to focus on other parts of the world and the famous TTIP American-European trade agreement fell through. President Donald Trump continued along set lines of loose cooperation. It is a fact that we cannot expect a significant improvement in Euro-Atlantic relations under President Biden and we will not see any major shifts during the term of our Presidency.
The Union has a few other hot coals to work with as well, with Cuba being perhaps the most pressing among them. The EU will need to react decisively during the Slovenian Presidency. Cuba is not only systematically violating human rights and freedoms, the death throes of the communist regime are resulting in appalling terror over the exhausted and hungry population of what was one of the most developed countries in the world before the revolution. So far any response of the EU has been lacking in resolve. Some invoke the EU-Cuba agreement, saying that it is just fine, others are calling for an embargo and some are against it. The letter of Chairman of the Parliament’s Foreign Policy Committee David McAllister that forecasts a more decisive attitude of the EU towards the Cuban crisis is a step towards resolving the issue. Perhaps Cuba has reached a critical mass of civil society organisations that can together bring more freedom to the island country, but Cuba has no future without the fall of the regime and introduction of democracy. Slovenia can assist in unifying the position of the EU with regard to the Cuban issue.
Western Balkans is again a priority for the Slovenian Presidency as substantial results were reached in this area during the first Presidency. Now any discussion about the expansion into the Western Balkans brings up blockages; first Greece and then Bulgaria. All of them more or less serve the geostrategic interests of Russia and China who do not want the EU to expand. The toughest nut in the region is Serbia. The country wishes to become a member of the EU while also strengthening its ties to Russia, even in the military sector. This, of course, is a problem for many parties. Some even expect Serbia to become a member of Nato before acceding to the EU. If circumstances in Bulgaria were more stable, perhaps Slovenia could move something, but as things stand now…
Iran has been the nightmare of European foreign policy for a long time and the Union does not have a common position in this issue. These days Slovenian Premier Janez Janša spoke favorably of the efforts of the most democratic Iranian opposition in diaspora, the NCRI (National Council of Resistance of Iran), which is headquartered in Paris. This garnered critical responses from some who support the Iranian regime, including the indecisive High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy of the EU Joseph Borrell. Critics invoked the nuclear treaty that is now unfortunately little more than a dead letter. Iran has been developing its nuclear capacities outside the treaty while enjoying the privileges granted by that same treaty. Meanwhile the regime has also been imprisoning and even executing political prisoners. Averting our eyes while this is going on is hardly in line with European values. At this point Slovenia can make a step forward and need not apologize for the position it has taken and which is the only right one to take. History will show this without doubt.
Perhaps another issue to note on is the Lukašenko regime in Belarus where circumstances are deteriorating as well. The President is using anything and everything in his violent suppression of his people with the direct support of the President of Russia. Slovenia has sent an important message by devoting attention to the Belarus opposition before taking on the Presidency. And the message was received. Lukašenko is also purposefully exporting migrants to Latvia and Poland with the aim of destabilizing the region. This also leaves Slovenia with very little room to manoeuvre in order to resolve the situation, except perhaps in the short term. In the long term the fall of Lukašenko’s regime is the only solution for Belarus. The same applies for Iran and Cuba.
There are not many opportunities for a breakthrough on this front. Slovenia cannot repeat the excellent results achieved in the first Presidency, but it can hold up a mirror to Eurocrats who implement the Union’s foreign policy with a bureaucratic mindset, address burning issues and provide appropriate answers in accordance with the values that Europe stands for. This is a prerequisite for the Union to regain its status as a global player.