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Prime Minister Janez Janša: Slovenia is in good condition to continue fighting against the negative effects of the epidemic

In an extended interview for the Hungarian weekly Figyelo published last Thursday, the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša talked about the country’s struggle against the coronavirus crisis, the economic recovery measures adopted by the government, and further government plans. He also reflected on the cooperation between Hungary and Slovenia, and the European future.

Prime Minister Janez Janša.

Prime Minister Janez Janša. | Author Kabinet predsednika vlade

The entire interview is presented below.

At a videoconference held last month by the Foundation for a Civic Hungary (Polgári Magyarországért Alapítvány), you described the coronavirus (COVID), cyberattacks and demographics as the three greatest challenges facing the EU. Can you discuss each one in more detail?

The coronavirus crisis caught Slovenia, Europe and the rest of the world entirely unprepared. By declaring states of emergency, confiscating personal protective equipment, closing borders, imposing curfews and implementing other measures, in March and April Europe seemed as if it returned to the Middle Ages. Even now we’re not in a post-COVID-19 stage yet, but in a stage where we’re resolving the economic consequences of the pandemic. The recovery fund proposed by the European Commission is a good response to the challenges of facing the effects of the coronavirus crisis, and a lot of effort is also being put into finding a vaccine or cure for this disease. Until we have one, an infection tracking app will enable us to avoid re-imposing the drastic measures or lockdown from the early stages of the pandemic.

The next major challenge facing Europe is cyberattacks, which can have great financial and other negative consequences. In developed countries, their full-scale use by other nations can even bring about effects comparable to those caused by nuclear weapons. This is why we suggested to Germany and Portugal, the other two countries in the presidency trio, that a plan for fighting against mass cyberattacks at the European level be prepared as a priority objective. (Editor’s note: The third member state in the trio is Slovenia, which will preside over the EU from July 2021 onward.)

But demographics are definitely the greatest current and future strategic challenge the EU faces. According to all indicators the European population is aging fast, and many countries are already putting the necessary efforts into adopting measures to slow down the aging curve. In this regard, we need to change our pension systems, introduce family policies that promote higher birth rates and adopt the right measures to overcome these demographic challenges.

The Slovenian government has been very successful in fighting the epidemic, and Slovenia was the first EU country to lift the strict protective measures and reopen the economy. How much did your government spend to stop the epidemic and help the economy?

The government adopted four statutory packages of measures, so-called anti-corona packages, to stop the COVID-19 epidemic and aid both citizens and the economy, spending over EUR 6 billion (nearly HUF 2,100 billion). These measures successfully and effectively saved lives, protected people’s health and maintained the country’s vital capacities, such as the economy, public services, the school system, science, culture, and so on. Thanks to these measures, Slovenia is in a good condition to continue fighting against the negative effects of the epidemic.

Which industry has the biggest problems right now? How many jobs have you managed to save, and what are the current unemployment trends?

The epidemic has caused the greatest problems in tourism, which has great multiplier effects on other industries, and also in agriculture and the sale of agricultural products. The service sector, especially restaurants and retail, is also dealing with significant problems, as is manufacturing, where the greatest decline has been experienced by activities connected with the automobile industry. Nonetheless, with the first three anti-corona packages the government has managed to save around 260,000 jobs and provide financial assistance to 1.3 million citizens. By introducing tourist vouchers we stimulated domestic tourism demand, which revived Slovenian tourism and saved many jobs in this industry. (Editor’s note: Adults with permanent residence in Slovenia received a voucher for EUR 200 and children received one for EUR 50.

As far as unemployment trends are concerned, we expect the economic situation to stabilise in the second half of the year and hence the situation on the labour market to improve. (Editor’s note: The current unemployment rate is 9.6%, which is 1.6 percentage points higher than at the start of the epidemic.)

Will you be able to keep current salaries and living standards? (Slovenia has the highest average salary among the former communist countries (average net salary: EUR 1,175 or approx. HUF 410,000), as well as highest pensions (EUR 665 on average) and GDP per capita).

The government measures to aid the population are aimed at maintaining general prosperity and living standards after the crisis. In fact, we expect that thanks to these measures general prosperity and living standards will actually be higher than before the epidemic. In our efforts we dedicated special attention to the most vulnerable groups, such as pensioners, students, and individuals receiving social assistance. Of course, the most important measures are aimed at maintaining the productive capacities of the economy.

What are your economic goals? Many mention a Slovenian “New Deal”. What does it mean?

The basic purpose of the Slovenian “New Deal”, as you call it, is to accelerate the investment projects that are more or less at a standstill because of red tape. Government measures to cut down on bureaucracy are a message to the business sector that more investment is welcome. The Slovenian government also sees the current crisis as an opportunity to support the revamping and modernisation of the Slovenian economy in the direction of digitalisation and a green, creative and smart economy through the implementation of the new industrial policy strategy.

Which scenario do you anticipate after coming out of the crisis: a rapid recovery, a crisis that will continue into the following year, or an even lengthier process?

We’re optimistic about the growth in Slovenia’s GDP. In its last forecast, the European Commission judged that the measures and packages adopted by the government would have positive effects, and predicted a rapid recovery for Slovenia. Standard & Poor’s (S&P) also confirmed the AA- credit rating, with a stable outlook, for Slovenia. So the outlook is secure, and Slovenia is in a good condition to fight against the negative effects of the pandemic. Of course, the situation may change radically if we’re hit by a second wave. That’s our biggest concern for now.

Will the coronavirus pandemic change the global market? In what industry can the role of local cooperation in Europe, especially Central and Eastern Europe, become stronger?

The coronavirus pandemic is definitely changing the global market. The role of local or regional cooperation in Europe will primarily grow stronger in areas such as the supply and logistics of critical food, energy and medical products and services.

The pandemic also raised questions about which kinds of production, mainly of strategic raw materials, should be (re)established at home, or how to shorten supply chains and thus reduce the risk of disruption.

Where do you see opportunities for Hungary’s participation in investment projects and programmes in Slovenia?

The list of the most important investment projects that are key for Slovenia’s recovery after the coronavirus pandemic includes the construction of the Ljubljana Passenger Centre, which will comprise the renovation of the railway station and the construction of a new bus station and commercial section, with a private Hungarian investor providing EUR 250 million for the latter.

The two countries could also cooperate in the construction of new railway infrastructure in general and in the border area between Rédics and Beltinci in particular, along with the establishment of cross-border public transport connections, a public-private partnership for the expansion or modernisation of the Maribor Airport, and so on. Based on the guidelines promoting active and sustainable mobility, they could also cooperate in building interstate cycling routes and establishing low emission corridors.

What do you expect from future Slovenian-Hungarian economic and political cooperation?

Hungary already ranks seventh among Slovenia’s international trade partners. I expect the trade in goods between the two countries to increase further, and that Hungary becomes an even more important international trade partner for Slovenia.

I’d like to highlight tourism, where Hungary is among the more important and promising markets. In recent years, the number of visitors from Hungary has been constantly growing. I’m convinced that our economic ties with Hungary will further strengthen through new forms of cooperation, with an emphasis on investment, tourism and joint participation in third-country markets.

Similar prospects also apply to our future political relations. Slovenia and Hungary maintain good neighbourly and friendly relations, based on continuous political dialogue and diverse cooperation in a number of joint-interest areas. Slovenia and Hungary are both members of the EU and NATO. We share an interest in a vital, successful, economically strong and safe EU, and effective collective defence within NATO. Both countries support the Euro-Atlantic future, and integration of the Western Balkans countries.

Even though the Slovenian constitution provides a high level of minority rights to ethnic minorities, the number of members of the Italian and Hungarian ethnic minorities is decreasing significantly. The representatives of these minorities claim there is a huge gap between the law and practice with regard to exercising minority rights. What can be done in this area? One of the major problems of the Hungarian ethnic community is also emigration due to the relatively poor economic situation in the bilingual area, or the entire Mura Valley.

True, the Slovenian constitution provides a high level of protection for the rights of the Italian and Hungarian ethnic minorities. In practice, this is a demanding, responsible and sensitive process of exercising rights, largely dependent on each government. In July, I signed a special agreement with the deputies of the Hungarian and Italian ethnic communities, Ferenc Horvath and Felice Žiža. This agreement extends beyond this term of office and specifies in detail the projects and tasks that will be carried out in the area where the two minorities live. All the projects are also evaluated financially, but what is important is that they are binding on the government. We anticipate this will go a long way to resolving the problem you mention. We’d also like to stimulate the economic development of both ethnic communities. We’ll strive to continue to comprehensively monitor and strictly enforce the public use of Italian and Hungarian as the official languages in the municipalities where the members of both ethnic communities live. We’ll pay special attention to developing the educational system of both ethnic communities, ensuring the programme, staff and financial stability of their media and promoting further development of their cultural activities and research. To promote the linguistic and cultural identity, cultural heritage, history and customs of both ethnic communities, we’ll work towards compiling a comprehensive list and registering their cultural heritage.

The Hungarian government has been strongly supporting the Hungarian minority in the Mura Valley for several years now. Can we expect the Slovenian government to adopt a similar approach in the Rába Valley?

The Slovenian government also provides a lot of support for the Hungarian ethnic community in the Mura Valley. Wrapping up this year is the 2017–2020 programme worth EUR 2,100,000 for measures stimulating investment in the business sector, tourism activities and products, promoting the programme area and supporting the programme’s implementation. In addition, the plans for the next, 2021–2024 programme are currently being prepared, which the government intends to support to the amount of EUR 2,100,000. I mention this because a similar approach is planned for the Rába Valley. Preparations and coordination are currently underway regarding the establishment of a support system for the development of an economic basis for the Slovenian ethnic community in the Rába Valley. A draft 2021–2024 development programme for the Rába Valley has been prepared, and the government has approved a total of EUR 2,800,000 for its funding. This way, and based on the content of the programme, which supports investment in the business sector, tourism and secondary activities, the establishment of Slovenian companies in the Rába Valley, and the promotion of the region in general, we will help write a story of success between the Mura and Rába rivers.

In the online conference “Europe Uncensored” you said that the EU project is not yet complete. What should Europe look like in your opinion?

The founding fathers established a European alliance so that Europe could be the master of its own destiny as much as possible. They built this alliance on values. This way increasingly more Europeans lived in peace, freedom and prosperity. The EU thus became a strong soft power tool, which also helped overthrow the totalitarian communist regimes in Europe. At that point, the opportunity arose for Europe to unite peacefully.

We were faced with the historical task of making a united and free Europe at peace with itself a reality. However, this vision hasn’t been fulfilled yet, and it remains our task. We must strengthen the European Union based on the values of European civilization and create an alliance which will ensure internal and external, economic and social security to its citizens. After the failed constitutional treaty, the financial and economic crises, which uncovered the problem of incomplete economic and monetary union, after the migration crisis and Brexit, it’s now vital to stabilise and consolidate the EU.

Therefore, it’s first necessary to expand the Schengen area, so that the external borders match the Schengen borders, and continue the EU enlargement process wherever suitable political decisions on the membership prospects of individual candidate states have already been adopted. The vision of a complete, united and free Europe which is at peace with itself, capable of basic demographic reproduction and growth, and strong enough to provide full external security to its people within NATO, will only become reality when all the countries in the Western Balkans and all the members of the Eastern Partnership that so wish and meet the required conditions become EU member states. Then Europe will also become a stronger geopolitical force.

You’ve mentioned that the EU founders were Christian Democrats, who strove for a community based on the values of Christian democracy, but today things are developing more along the lines of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. New left-wing, fiercely anti-elitist movements are emerging in Europe, largely joined by young people. Your parliamentary opposition also includes a party like that, the Left (Levica), alongside the post-communist Social Democrats (Socialni demokrati). With whom and how can Christian democracy be built if its values are attacked by young people?

The traditional Christian values are not attacked by all young people. The problem is that the media highlights and also supports leftist movements, including proto-terrorist ones, in a way that makes it seem there are practically no other views and movements. In fact there are many young Slovenians who advocate the values of European civilization, but because the media support for their efforts is poor, to put it mildly, it seems as if they don’t exist.

What can be expected from Slovenia in terms of demography? Slovenia’s population has increased somewhat over the past two decades. According to the statistical data, its population as of 1 January 2020 was 2,095,861 or 15,000 more than the year before. Is this the result of a natural population increase or immigration?

Looking at a longer period starting in the mid-1990s, Slovenia’s population has been increasing due to immigration. The exception was the period between 2006 and 2016, when it mainly increased due to a higher birth rate. Unfortunately, this has been decreasing over the past years. To this end, the priority measures highlighted in our coalition agreement include providing assistance through a housing scheme for young families and the construction of rental housing. (Editor’s note: In addition to the reintroduction of free preschool for the second child and all subsequent children.) We’re in the process of establishing a government demography office, which will coordinate measures horizontally to increase the birth rate, provide assistance to families and promote intergenerational solidarity.

Migrations are also part of demographics, and, like you said, they’ve already caused irreparable damage to some countries. How do you see Slovenia’s future, including in terms of ensuring a sufficient working-age population?

The migration policy, which some describe as the perfect solution to demographic challenges, can only resolve these challenges effectively if it is suitably managed and if it accounts for the social, cultural and economic costs of migration. If it doesn’t, it can lead to irreversible consequences, the likes of which we can see in some west and north European countries, unfortunately. We certainly don’t want that to happen in Slovenia. We must also distinguish between migrations within European or Western civilization and those from outside. But certainly our main approach to addressing demographic challenges is not by importing people. A good European future for me is one in which Europe will be sufficiently demographically vital to be able to increase or at least maintain the number of Europeans, and at the same time be culturally, spiritually, economically and militarily strong enough to be able to help other countries in its wider neighbourhood to stabilise and develop to the point where they no longer exert an incontrollable demographic pressure on the Old Continent, which simply has neither the social capacity nor enough physical space to accommodate everyone who wants to come here. From prehistoric times onward, human history teaches us that even very different civilizations can co-exist in peace if they keep to themselves, without any forced mixing or one exerting aggressive military or cultural-religious pressure on the other.

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