The White Paper on the Future of the Union prompted many new formats that the European institutions as well as national politicians have been testing in the past years, to bring the discussion on the future of the European Union closer its citizens. In this view, Commissioners like Violeta Bulc, have been undertaking a number of Citizens Dialogues, the French President Emmanuel Macron announced a similar setting and we are eagerly awaiting the annual State of the European Union address by the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, who will this week present his own vision for Europe.
Last week, Slovenia hosted the first Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, who held a dialogue with citizens at the national television. The debate was broadcast live during prime time on TV, as well as radio and social media of the European Commission’s representation in Slovenia. A day later, discussions about the European Union took place in the frame of the Bled Strategic Forum. However, when there is talk in Slovenia about the future of the European Union, more often than not, we face a very limited debate with short-term visions presented by citizens as well as those who represent our country in Brussels and take decisions on its behalf. Long-term scenarios are being debated in Brussels, while Slovenia is thinking about more cohesion funds and how to deal with our neighbours in the next few years. This was again demonstrated last week in the studio of the Slovenian national broadcaster, as well as in the big hall in Bled.
Discussing Croatia, Poland and more Croatia with Commission VP
During the dialogue with citizens, VP Timmermans touched a variety of topics, from external affairs of the EU, to internal borders, student exchanges in the frame of Erasmus+ to Brexit. Populism and intolerance were crammed in a single question from the audience, which was in general well prepared and shared its concerns in a calm, tolerant and open manner. It was no surprise that most participants in the dialogue were curious about the Vice President’s view on Croatia’s statement that the country will not implement the outcome of the arbitrage related to international borders with Slovenia. Mr. Timmermans offered comprehensive and patient answers and descriptions of European and international legal environment, including in comparison to football.
»The European Union is like playing football. We agree on the rules beforehand and we have to respect them. If a football player took the ball in his hands in the middle of the match, the referee would punish him accordingly. The same goes for the EU. When a sovereign country accepts common rules, it also accepts consequences of potential non-compliance with those rules.« – F. Timmermans
Discussion touched also the question of controls at internal borders, which was raised by discussants from Maribor, whose proximity to the Austrian border allows them to be aware of the inconvenience on everyday basis. Other topics included the corruption index, external border controls and sovereignty of the Member States. The public in both TV studios, Ljubljana and Maribor, was well prepared and questions were mostly well thought through. This was probably very helpful to those following the European discussion on European issues from their homes. However, in spite of the general topic of the dialogue being the future of the European Union, when leaving the studio, I felt its short-term nature. It seemed that in Slovenia, we are currently more worried about punishing our neighbours who intend to break the international (not EU) law, than what European Union will look like for our children.
A multi-speed Europe and Slovenia’s role in it
The Bled Strategic Forum brings together experts, politicians, representatives of governments, journalists and the civil society that in one way or another deal with external relations. In the context of this year’s panel on the »European Union in a changed world«, discussion was focussed on the future of EU integrations. While Commissioner Violeta Bulc reminded us of the bloody history of our continent and called on the public to remember the basic reason for the start of European integrations, the former President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, was more direct when he asked the key question: do we want more community policies or more intergovernmental cooperation. At the same time, he suggested that the answer to the question is inevitably linked to the reform of the EU budget.
»We have to ask citizens what they see from the EU, what they understand, what they wish and what they expect. Only then can we suggest policies that address their worries and wishes. In the past, we have done the inverse (e.g. Treaty on the Constitution of the EU) and citizens turned against Europe. We need to give them the voice.« – N. Loiseau, French Minister for European Affairs
None of Cox’s interlocutors answered his question, especially not the representative of the Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Iztok Mirošič, whose intervention confidently rested on three recurring points: cohesion, funds and enlargement. The latter topic is a tradition in Slovenia, which feels, even if it refrains from showing it, much closer to the candidates from the Western Balkans than any other EU Member State. The former, cohesion and funds, should in a Slovenian context be seen in conjunction and mean a request for more funding, On the other hand, Mirošič mentioned that Slovenia strongly supports the community method (very pro-EU) and sees itself in the elite circle of EU Member States in the future. This could sound as a call for a multi-speed Europe, a concept as old as integration itself, which foresees various clubs or circles of Member States, whereby some are more advanced in integration than others. In the past, Slovenia has been reluctant towards such approach to European cooperation, as national politicians felt that the country could have been left behind. In this view, a connotation of a multi-speed Europe as understood from Mirošič’s speech is rather intriguing.
Slovenia’s ambition to become member of the club of elite Member States in Europe is indeed an enormous deal. Would the country be successful in its endeavours, how good would such a strategy prove to be for Slovenia and in what way does the country intend to follow this goal through are some questions that could be addressed by the experts in the coming months. Finally, it will be interesting to follow whether these ambitions will ever arrive to Brussels.