Interview with Prime Minister Janez Janša for Polish magazine Sieci
Prime Minister Janez Janša has given an interview to Sieci, a Polish weekly magazine. The interview covers the prime minister’s letter to European leaders about the rule of law, Slovenia’s presidency of the Council of the EU, the American elections, the media in post-communist countries and his political career.
1. Your letter to European leaders provoked a lively debate. What made you write it?
When after long negotiations we succeeded in reaching an agreement on the multiannual financial framework and recovery fund at the European Council in July, there was a great deal of political capital invested in this. Responsibility for this agreement lies with the European Council as a whole, and with each member. We need to ensure that the final agreement is fully in line with what we agreed in July. This will allow us to begin the allocation of funds sorely needed by individual member-states, the European economy and the people of Europe.
My letter was written in this spirit. It’s an appeal to reason, and a call for awareness of the seriousness of the situation when the agreements being reached between the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament took a turn away from the July agreement. And also, I firmly believe, from the Treaty on European Union. It’s our shared responsibility to ensure that the final agreement is acceptable to all member-states, and in line with the agreement that we as members of the European Council are custodians of. The letter is also a call to uphold the TEU, and for the equal treatment of all member-states, as what is at stake is the very existence of the EU as we know it today, and as we joined it in 2004. Brexit was the final warning. The creation of a mechanism, wrongly named the rule of law, that would contravene the TEU is the equivalent of an uncontrolled nuclear blast, which could literally destroy the EU. Not in an explosion, or overnight, but piece by piece. Much more than just the EU budget and the recovery fund lies in the balance.
2. You’ve observed that the EU has distanced itself from the original ideas and vision for which it was founded. How has that happened?
The vision of a united Europe, as conceived by Robert Schuman, is based on the mutual recognition of equal dignity, on working together for the common good, which also includes the good for each country involved, and on solidarity. The fall of the communist regimes put the goal of a Europe whole and free, and at peace with itself, within reach. It became a common historic endeavour, and the responsibility of all European nations and states.
The foundation of this construct remains mutual respect, respect for the dignity of all voters in all member-states and their fundamental decisions, and, of course, the need to uphold common treaty frameworks. Here I should reiterate that the rule of law is, and must remain, an underlying principle of the EU. A country where the political system is not based on democracy and the rule of law does not meet the conditions of membership at all.
3. Warsaw and Budapest have lodged a veto. The response from most western media has been critical.
The TEU and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union set out detailed rules for making decisions on individual substantive matters. Poland and Hungary acted in line with these rules when the decision was being made, and stated their position. Their position has been communicated clearly and transparently for a long time now. According to the decision-making rules, the presidency of the Council can conclude that the Council does not have the majority needed to pass all the legal acts necessary to be able to implement the July agreement. Based on the treaty provisions, any member-state can lodge a veto anywhere that unanimity is needed for a collective decision. The decision-making rules apply equally to all. If this were not the case, it would be a de facto breach of the principle of the rule of law in decision-making in the collective institutions. This instrument has been used formally and informally on many previous occasions. For example, the Netherlands is blocking progress towards closer cooperation with Ukraine, Bulgaria is blocking the opening of negotiations for North Macedonia’s membership, and Greece prevented North Macedonia from joining Nato and the EU for years. Not to mention that voters in France and the Netherlands rejected the European Constitution in referendums, while Ireland initially rejected the Treaty of Lisbon.
4. Do you think some people in Europe now wrongly see Hungary and Poland as countries causing problems and blocking the aid package?
This is anyway the plan in certain circles. Just look at the statement by Soros. Namely, creating the appearance of scapegoating to generate sufficient pressure for these two countries to give in. This is exceptionally bad for the EU, irrespective of who thinks what. Ahead of us lies an extremely difficult period of containing the pandemic, distributing the vaccine, and managing the economic recovery, let alone the strategic challenges for Europe, such as demographics and illegal migration. I’m therefore once again calling on all of us to find a solution as quickly as possible, so we can focus our time and energy on the challenges of the future. According to my information, in recent days the German presidency has invested a good deal of effort in seeking solutions, so let us hope that the second act of this drama is as successful as the first in July.
5. Slovenia will assume the presidency of the Council of the EU in July of next year. How will it handle the issue of tying the budget to rule-of-law criteria?
Slovenia will consistently argue for the rule of law and equal criteria for all, wherever they may be, both at home and across the EU. This is also our starting point when it comes to the instruments of the multiannual financial framework and the recovery fund. This is what we will always commit to, unconditionally, without any double standards. The rule of law cannot be, and by very definition is not, a matter for the political majority at any time, as then there is no longer the rule of law, but the tyranny of the majority. Discretionary mechanisms based not on independent judgment but on politically motivated criteria cannot be called the rule of law. Actions in this connection must comply with the Treaty of Lisbon.
6. What does all this say about the future of the EU?
The future of the EU in the sense of its goal of contributing to a Europe whole and free, and at peace with itself, is largely dependent on respect for the dignity of voters and their fundamental decisions in all member-states. If this is not so, we’re not creating a Europe that is at peace with itself, as the imposition of certain views, visions and ideologies is creating internal discord.
A culture war at pan-European level cannot help unity and harmony. Its effects could be highly destructive. A sure bulwark against this is upholding the sovereignty of member-states, which means their fundamental choices in questions of identity and culture. However, respect for the common treaty framework, the limits on the powers of collective institutions, legal and terminological clarity, legal certainty and judicial relief must also be bulwarks against the diversity of views being instrumentalised in the sense of an ideological struggle between countries and at the supranational level. It would be good for Europeans to remember the famous words of St Augustine: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity).
7. Do you have the impression that the European elites fail to understand the position of the newer EU members that once lived under communist regimes?
From my own experience I can say that certain current western European politicians, elites, media and influencers have failed to grasp the depth of the problems facing post-communist countries. Pope John Paul II, Reagan, Kohl, Martens, Thatcher, Mock: they understood well why things happened the way they did when the Iron Curtain fell. Now this gets overlooked, on account of passing of time and the loss of historical memory. This genuinely raises the question of whether political elites in the west even get the political reality in post-communist countries. This is what gives rise to misunderstandings, like the rule-of-law mechanism. Let me give you an absurd example: there are still judges active in the Slovenian judicial system who drastically violated human rights and fundamental freedoms under the communist regime. Who issued death sentences and defended the killing of civilians on the border between the former Yugoslavia and Italy. With their help the elections in Slovenia were literally stolen in 2014. But despite our appeals, we did not get any real reaction from EU institutions. But this is not all. The violators of human rights are publicly threatening that in the event of the much-needed reforms that would merely set our judicial system on an independent footing, they will call for help from the EU.
8. It seems now that Joe Biden will be the next president of the USA. What is your comment on the defeat of Donald Trump? Some see this as the turning of the tide against populist politicians in Europe.
First, let’s wait for the final outcome of all legal processes in connection with the election results in the USA. American democracy is almost 250 years old. During this time it has undergone some difficult experiences, both with its institutions, and with the social fabric. Focusing solely on disputed election results, the case studies are from 1876, 1824 and 1800. The USA’s democratic institutions have been perfected over the years, and are solid and resilient. Checks and balances are the rule there. They are functioning as they were designed to.
Another challenge exposed by the post-election situation is the social fabric. Research has shown that there have been many moments in history when Congress and society were much more polarised than today. But people did not live one set against the other, but one with the other. This means that people and politicians tried to find common ground and interests, based on which they resolved the challenges facing them. Today we see the frightening recordings of attacks by Antifa, not even sparing children or the elderly. We see violent exclusion on the grounds of purity of ideas. Everything is permissible in its name. We have seen all this before in Europe. When violence is allowed in society, or is condoned in the name of or because of a political idea, we have a problem.
As far as populism is concerned, it’s a question of definitions, which can differ considerably. If we define populism as a politician responding to people who have to date felt ignored by politicians, then this is a general political trend, and we can call all politicians populists. If we’re equating populism with demagoguery that makes use of simplistic arguments in response to complex challenges, and that appeals to the voters through emotion and ideology, then we have to look for today’s populists on the left, and not on the right. With their basis in cultural Marxism, it’s the identity left that fit the definition. Trump as a phenomenon does not, as between Scylla and Charybdis he told the plain truth to demagogues from left and right. Trump has opposed the right-wing economic institutional liberalism and unconstrained globalisation that brought deindustrialisation to the USA and weakened the power and role of the lower and middle classes. On the left, Trump has resisted the identity left, who are targeting the very foundations of American society: the constitution, historical memory, values, government institutions and instruments, and the strategic culture.
And in the end, the Republicans enjoyed excellent results. They gained their largest ever level of support from black and Hispanic voters, both in absolute terms and as a percentage. They narrowed the gap in the House of Representatives, and won many governorships and local elections, for example in New Hampshire and Vermont. If anything, the centre-right is on the rise, both in the USA and in Europe.
9. You’re a politician who is often exposed to harsh attacks in the media. How do you fix the media situation in certain former communist countries, where the media establishment is still dominated by post-communist personnel?
In Slovenia, during totalitarian times, journalists were political operatives, and as such were mostly vocal supporters of the communist regime. Anyone who resisted that felt the consequences. Unfortunately, despite the democratic changes in Slovenia and in certain other former communist countries, as you correctly say, not enough has changed. Certain structures of the former regime in the media (and in the judicial system) are still very much alive. How else can we explain the fact that parties of the left have uncompromising media support, or even play a part in creating media content? It might not be widely known in Poland, but a number of Slovenian journalists, from state-owned stations and commercial stations alike, ran as candidates for left-wing parties and were elected, some for the European Parliament, while other journalists have found work as PR advisors to parties of the left. Of course, when it comes to media support, it is much easier for politicians on the left. I don’t count myself among those politicians who follow public opinion; rather, I follow what the people – the voters – say, when in the most recent elections they strongly supported the Slovenian Democratic Party, which I lead.
Slovenia’s media monopoly facilitates and supports the double standards that unfortunately are often or have often been practised by government bodies. Thus the laundering of billions of euros for a totalitarian regime at the state-owned bank is not investigated or punished in Slovenia, while the chair of the parliamentary commission that uncovered it is subject to interrogation. Spreading a false picture of the situation in the country, where others are being framed for their actions and intentions; attacking and discrediting anything that the democratically elected authorities could use in any way to defend themselves in the media, in the diplomatic world, or in public, and calling on the attacked not to defend themselves; creating crises at any price.
But there remains hope. This hope comes mainly from education and the internet. The internet gives every individual a little bit of media power, which in combination with knowledge and the ability to immediately check information sharply reduces the reach of media monopolies. An active effort to work for the common good, and a strong voice, a voice without fake political correctness, the voice of the individual against incitement, the creation of further crises and irresponsible behaviour, can change a lot. The modern medicine for media monopolies is competition in the media space and internet freedom. Without competition in the media space, democracy is an illusion.
10. You’ve had an incredible political career. You were one of the main figures in the struggle for Slovenia’s independence, you were imprisoned in a communist jail. Later, in 2014, you were first wrongfully convicted, and then cleared by a judgment from the constitutional court. You considered leaving politics. But you’re still fighting... What drives you on?
Those who ordered agents from Udba, Slovenia’s state security police, to arrest me on 31 May 1988 were responsible for me entering politics in a way that was irreversible. Since then the same people, who from the politburo of the old communist party have seeded themselves across government institutions, the judicial system and business, have wanted to remove me from the political scene in any way possible. They have failed. Quite the reverse, everything they’ve done has made me even more convinced to carry on. Three years after the arrest, and a show trial before the military court in Ljubljana, which stirred the majority of the nation into protests against the communist dictatorship, we achieved independence for Slovenia. I’m convinced that with persistence we will finally liberate Slovenia from the tangles of its totalitarian past.
The Slovenian Democratic Party, which I lead today, has spent 20 years of Slovenia’s 30 years of independence in opposition. Without the power to directly influence events. But for a third of that time we’ve been in government, in coalitions, and I’m now leading my third, and still trying to develop the country equally. So that Slovenes and citizens of Slovenia can live in prosperity. So that courts rule according to law, and fairly. So that we can have a healthy democracy, not a caliphate run by the deep state. My aim has always been to create the conditions for young people to not have to leave their homeland, but to return to it and stay, because they’re able to have a good home, a family and a career. I believe in the power of different thinkers working together. And in particular in the Slovene nation and its strength, as they have survived awful experiences in their history. I also believe that Slovenia has all the attributes to become exceptional, a place of prosperity for all those who work hard, and not just for a few who believe in their entitlement from birth. This we can achieve if only we’re able to work together for the common good, and if we carry our homeland in our hearts.
With years and experience, someone who is capable of learning also gains a heightened sense, and begins to distinguish the important from the unimportant. Therefore the media and the virtual reality that they create have virtually no effect on me, which allows me to decide on the basis of values and facts.