BALKAN BLOG: Slovenia’s Jansa goes from EU rebel to champion for Ukraine enlargement

BALKAN BLOG: Slovenia’s Jansa goes from EU rebel to champion for Ukraine enlargement
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow March 15, 2022

Slovenia’s EU Council presidency in the second half of 2021 was marred by repeated clashes over EU values between right-wing Prime Minister Janez Jansa and European officials. Just three months after the presidency ended, however, Jansa has become a leading advocate within the EU for Ukraine’s accession to the bloc. 

Jansa, like fellow right-wing populist politicians in eastern EU members Poland and Hungary, had increasingly challenged the liberal values of the EU on issues such as gay rights and media freedom. They resisted the application in their countries of ideals they consider to have been imposed by Brussels and the West European members of the union. 

On occasion, Jansa has gone so far as to liken this to the totalitarianism in the former socialist republics of Eastern Europe. In November 2020, for example, Jansa backed the decision by Poland and Hungary to veto the EU budget over plans to tie funding to respect for the rule of law. "Today, some political groups in the European Parliament openly threaten to use an instrument incorrectly called the 'rule of law' to discipline individual member states by a majority vote," he wrote in a letter to EU leaders. "Those of us who have spent part of our lives under totalitarian regimes know that deviation from reality begins when processes or institutions are given names that mean the exact opposite of their essence," he added.

The following July, he told The Guardian that imposing “imaginary European values” on Central Europe could lead to the union’s collapse. The comment was made following a spat between Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte over a Hungarian bill intended to outlaw the promotion or portrayal of homosexuality to children.

Jansa was also one of the few European leaders, alongside Orban in Hungary, to publicly support former US president Donald Trump, tweeting his support ahead of the November 2020 US presidential election. After the vote he jumped the gun by congratulating Trump on his re-election — even though the official results had not yet been declared, and the eventual winner was Democrat candidate Joe Biden. 

A controversial presidency 

Ahead of Slovenia’s six-month EU Council presidency in the second half of 2021 there were fears that Ljubljana’s ability to provide leadership to the bloc was constrained by squabbles between Jansa and EU officials, as his government was increasingly at odds with the EU’s core values. 

Ljubljana was strongly criticised for suspending funding for news agency STA and also clashed with Brussels over other issues such as the nomination of Slovenia’s European prosecutors. A video conference between EU and Slovenian officials and civil society representatives to discuss the state of media freedom in Slovenia ended acrimoniously

When Slovenia embarked upon its presidency on July 1, 2021, the rifts between Jansa and EU officials were on public display. At a joint press conference with the Slovenian prime minister, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke explicitly of the need for Slovenia to ensure the “independence and the funding of the public service provider” (STA), and talked of respect for freedom of expression, diversity and equality as “the very essence of our European Union”. 

Vice-President Frans Timmermans simply absented himself from the group photo, saying in a statement quoted by newswires that he “simply could not be on the same podium with PM Jansa” after a row between the two earlier in the day. 

For his part, Jansa, a prolific and outspoken tweeter, has not held back from criticism, including of Slovenian media outlets and individual journalists. This prompted his critics to nickname him ‘Marshal Tweeto’, a reference to the former Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito and Jansa’s enthusiasm for the micro-blogging platform Twitter.

Strong stance on Ukraine 

However, despite his scepticism about EU values, Jansa has been a vocal advocate for Ukraine’s accession to the bloc. Poland, even more so, has supported Ukraine and is also on the frontline of the refugee crisis. Their tough tone on Russia contrasts with that of the Hungarian government which, as reported by bne IntelliNews, has been struggling to meet its obligation to its Nato and EU allies at the same time as appeasing ruling party Fidesz’ pro-Putin base. 

Even before the Russian invasion, after Moscow took the step of recognising the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as independent, Jansa called on the EU to offer a full membership perspective to Ukraine. After Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed an official request for his country's accession, Jansa swiftly expressed support for a speedier EU membership process for Ukraine. He argued that Moldova and Georgia would be next if Ukraine fell, with Baltic countries probably next in line and "things being cooked up" in the Western Balkans. 

He reiterated this point a few days later when calling for Nato to do more to strengthen Ukraine's air defences, and on March 4 he argued that the fight for Ukraine is also a fight for Europe. Speaking in a live interview with Skynews, Jansa said that if Russian President Vladimir Putin takes over Ukraine, other countries are also threatened, "because he will continue his aggression", according to the prime minister's office. He likened the current situation in Ukraine to that in 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. "If Hitler had been stopped during the attack on Poland, Europe would not have faced the six-year World War II," he said.

Indicating why he has emerged as an advocate for tough action on Russia and EU membership with Ukraine, Jansa said: "In Slovenia, we know how they feel in Ukraine, because we were in a similar situation 30 years ago. Slovenia was attacked by the Yugoslav People's Army, which behaved similarly to the Russian army today.” 

At the informal summit of EU leaders in Versailles on March 10, Jansa again stressed the importance of Ukraine’s membership in the EU under the current geopolitical conditions, and said the EU should provide guarantees for membership of Ukraine in the bloc as soon as possible.

“If we talk about it in ten years, it means nothing to Ukrainians,” he said.

“Aggressive” enlargement 

Jansa’s support for Ukraine’s EU accession doesn’t come out of nowhere. While challenging what have become broadly (but not universally) accepted as EU values, he has at the same time been a strong believer in the benefits of enlargement to Slovenia’s neighbours in the Western Balkans. 

Ahead of Slovenia’s EU presidency it was announced that “special attention” would be devoted to the Western Balkans, especially to continuing the EU enlargement process and enhancing the European perspective of the region. Jansa commented at the time that EU needs to return to an “aggressive” enlargement policy to admit the Western Balkans countries. He suggested that admitting all six Western Balkans countries into the EU could help solve numerous problems, including issues with migration and malign interference by “geopolitical rivals”, which he did not name but presumably include Russia and China. 

“Becoming part of the EU was an answer for us and is still an answer for other neighbouring countries,” Jansa said. 

Up for re-election 

Jansa was Slovenia’s prime minister from 2004 until 2008 and again in 2012 to February 2013, when he was dismissed in a no-confidence vote as the ruling coalition unravelled amid a scandal over defence procurement. He is such a polarising figure in Slovenia that when his Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) emerged as the largest party in the parliament after the 2018 election five years later, other parties banded together to keep him out of power. 

Less than two years later, however, the coalition folded and Jansa finally returned as prime minister. Even the threat of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic didn’t unite the country behind Jansa, and there were repeated protests in spring 2021 as opponents of the government accused it of using the pandemic as a pretext to curtail civil liberties. More protests have followed, including a gathering of around 10,000 people in April 2021 when protesters accused the government of degrading democracy and attacks on cultural workers, the media, NGOs and intellectuals. 

Rival parliamentary parties have tried to oust the SDS-led government, but without success, and Jansa is now just a month away from the April general election. Recent polls show the SDS faces a strong challenge from the recently formed Freedom Movement, but it is as yet unclear how Slovenians, who are deeply fearful about the impact of the war in Ukraine, may change their voting intentions in light of the altered geopolitical situation.