Participants in the introductory debate on the future of Europe promoted an inclusive exchange of views
Today at Brdo pri Kranju, Prime Minister Janez Janša held the first introductory debate on the future of Europe entitled “The Future of Europe – Discussion on Strategic Challenges at the Beginning of a pan-European debate”. The participants in the debate were also President of Slovenia Borut Pahor, Adviser to the President Dr Ernest Petrič (through video call), former Minister of Foreign Affairs Dimitrij Rupel, lawyer Dr Matej Avbelj, lawyer Dr Jurij Toplak and former Member of the European Parliament Zofija Mazej Kukovič.
Prime Minister Janez Janša initially emphasized that the epidemic delayed the debate on the future of the European continent into the period of Slovenian presidency of the Council of the EU, which presents us with additional challenges. Today’s debate is an introduction to a number of round tables, debates, exchanges of views and opinions, which we will organise by the end of the year. Some of those events will only take place at the national level, while others will be organised more widely, with participation of representatives from other European countries.
The content of the debate is partly laid down in the EU Strategic Agenda, explained the Prime Minister. Thus, the part of the debate where the EU institutions will influence the content will focus on the green and digital transition. This is a strategic agenda that will change our way of life and affect it in the next decade.
The epidemic has also raised two new topics. The first one is the issue of resilience. As Janša said, we proposed two additional priorities to the German and Portuguese presidency – cybersecurity and building Europe’s resilience to better cope with the epidemic. This has become one of the central topics in Europe where numerous acts are being prepared. He emphasized that there is a lack of agreement on many topics in the EU. The debate regarding the EU’s own resources is one of such topics. Two acts are also pending, namely the directive on digital market and the directive on digital services. According to the Prime Minister, tax on digital services is very likely one of the future key mechanisms for the EU’s own resources. He pointed out that no country can efficiently collect this tax on its own and include it in its own finances, because this is a global matter, so we should reach an agreement on this within the EU and within the World Trade Organisation. He believes that the majority decision-making on foreign policy issues will be another high-profile topic, since the views on this are very different. The demographic picture of the EU, which presents a strategic problem, will also need to be discussed, and in Prime Minister’s opinion, the debates in this regard are too often narrowed down to the issue of migration. There is little place for optimism on reaching breakthrough solutions – perhaps only on the issue of asylum, the Prime Minister pointed out.
He firmly believes that the debate on the future of Europe must be of an open kind. This should not only be a debate at government level, but a debate where everyone can participate. It is important not to restrict those who may have different views on the future of the EU as opposed to the “mainstream” view.
Prime Minister Janša added that the next Bled Strategic Forum at the beginning of September will be fully dedicated to a debate on the future of the EU.
President Borut Pahor would also like the debate to be as inclusive as possible at all levels. He emphasized that the Conference is of great importance for Slovenia, the presiding country in the period in which the Conference will be taking place. He pointed out that, due to the pandemic-related circumstances and the political and security situation, he does not expect as much from the Conference as he otherwise would and as he believes the citizens and Europe would deserve.
He believes that Europe should be more integrated that it currently is. A Europe based on its traditional principles, reconciliation, respect for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, freedom of the media and new values connected to sustainable policy.
He hopes that he will have the opportunity to vote for a president of the EU during his lifetime.
He wants to contribute to achieving these objectives by organizing debates at schools with experts and different public, in order to ensure an exchange of opinions that would be as diverse as possible.
He mentioned the initiative of the presidents of the EU member states on Europe Day: “Let’s talk about Europe”, which was prepared on his and Italian President Mattarella’s initiative. He also mentioned that at the recent Brdo-Brijuni summit, the leaders adopted a Declaration calling for the Western Balkans to be included in the debate on the future of Europe. He also listed some other planned activities. He announced that at the end of the month, he will host the German and Portuguese President on the topic of the future of Europe.
President Pahor believes that the debate on the EU also offers an opportunity to discuss our own future.
Dr Dimitrij Rupel said that the EU was initially founded on reconciliation, solidarity and cooperation. He believes that later on, the idea of a closer connection began to disappear. He is certain that the EU’s task will be to regulate the relations between the old and the new member states and the issue or reorganization is also being raised. At this point, he highlighted the initiative for direct election of a European President in free and secret general elections. Rupel pointed out that EU would need its own Constitution in order to become more closely connected. In his opinion, the EU has lately been testing its supranational competences. Especially by criticizing the internal political situation in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. He raised the issue of EU enlargement towards the south. The countries of the Western Balkans present an important challenge. In addition to the enlargement, he believes that the countries of the European neighbourhood will also present a major challenge.
Zofija Mazej Kukovič spoke about the challenges we faced during the pandemic. She pointed out that the EU was not prepared for the danger, so the scientists and the European medicine sector in general should prepare in advance for eventual new epidemics. She warned that none of these institutions believe that this was the last epidemic. She pointed out the importance of the role of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the European Medicines Agency and the European Food Safety Authority. Mazej Kukovič mentioned the setting up of “Hera Incubator”, which will bring together all scientists from Europe in the field of communicable diseases. She also underlined the importance of digitisation. She believes that women should also become more invested in digital science.
Dr Ernest Petrič initially said that in the 1950ies, when the European integration started, the EU was a matter of the elite. He is convinced that in the present times, these things must include the participation of the broadest part of the population. Petrič said that this debate can only be successful if we manage to attract a wide range of debaters.
Today’s world has a new geopolitical distribution. The economic and the financial strength are distributed differently. Europe is no longer the only centre of power and development, but it is still one of these centres, Petrič pointed out.
In the new emerging world, serious confrontation of national interests will be at the forefront, which may lead to serious conflicts of interests. He believes that the destruction of the environment (linked to scarce natural resources) presents an important challenge for us, as well as the preservation of entities and identities. Among other things, he highlighted Europe’s demographic and security issues.
Mankind is also facing new possibilities. New worlds are opening up as we fly into space. Reaching the bottom of the ocean, breakthroughs in the field of artificial intelligence, digitalisation. Development of genetics and medicine.
Petrič believes that integration in Europe in contrast to Europe as a community of sovereign states while preserving the identity of nations will pose a challenge.
In his opinion, Slovenia must be aware that we are part of Central Europe. We must play a special role here. He added that Western Balkans are also a part of Europe where we can play an important role.
Dr Matej Avbelj went on to say that from the perspective of the European Integration Theory, Europe is at a crossroads. In recent decades, there were many internal and external crises in the EU, all of which have gone so far that they have shaken the very foundations of European integration. On the other hand, these crises have caused a number of powers that form the very essence of the national political and democratic process to be transferred to the institutions of the European Union, without having a wider discussion on this subject.
In the debate that started on 9 May, we will decide on three possible scenarios: taking the reform path forward, maintaining the status quo, or restoring the previous situation, a sort of gradual disintegration of our connection. He also pointed out that the Schuman Declaration is a symbolic value base and a document of European integration. There are three objectives of European integration arising from this document: firstly, the establishment and maintenance of lasting peace on the European continent; secondly, the creation of economic well-being, and thirdly, an effective response to geostrategic challenges. The concept of the European Federation was built on these three foundations.
Avbelj said it is absolutely clear that even 70 years after the Schuman Declaration was published and presented, its objectives are far from achieved. It can never be fully realised, because the challenges it addresses are ongoing.
He expressed his belief that the most convincing way forward was the reform scenario. The three fundamental political pillars on which the reform scenario can develop and withstand are pluralism, constitutional democracy, and non-state federation.
Since all people have the same human dignity, we have the right to be different. Mutual recognition of this right and thus acceptance of diversity is at the heart of the normative, ethical and political system called pluralism. And pluralism is the very essence of Europe and the premise of its long-term existence.
Experience teaches us that the possibility of any pluralism, especially the political one, exists only in the conditions of constitutional democracy. This is the form of democracy where the fundamental value is the protection of every individual. Pluralism is crucial to the existence of constitutional democracy, and without constitutional democracy, there is no pluralism. In parallel, there is no constitutional democracy without the rule of law. Therefore, the question of the rule of law is important not only for the existence of countries such as Slovenia, but also for the existence of the European Union as such. Slovenia should strive to establish a pan-European consensus in the field of the rule of law.
He also pointed out that we should raise awareness of the citizens on the fact that the vast majority of regulations governing our lives in member states are no longer adopted in national parliaments but in a supranational democratic political process, i.e. at the level of the EU.
Dr Jurij Toplak initially said that, as a citizen of the EU, he wants to live in an environment where the authorities, elections and courts work in a transparent way and keep to their commitments, where there is a rule of law and the authorities respect human rights. He also wants a European Union that would ensure freedom and pluralism in political debate, media pluralism, and a EU with strong pan-European universities whose research and education will have a lead on the world market.
He presented some of his proposals for the future of Europe: transparency of EU bodies, as transparency creates trust; European Union should honour its international commitments, because it sets an example for the Member States. He further proposed that the EU should bring the people and the EU authorities closer together. The EU is facing criticism on being distant from the people. For example, European parliamentarians, who are the only European officials elected directly from the people, have no legislative initiative. If they would have it, this would improve democracy, bring the European Parliament closer to the people and increase the people’s sense of being European. He also called for the EU to ensure free and fair elections on its territory, which is currently left to the Member States. The EU would also make progress if it took steps to create the right balance between freedom and pluralism in politics, elections and the media. Freedom and pluralism are the prerequisites for democracy.
He also said that the European Union must ensure the rule of law and thus protect human rights and the rights of companies, because there are big differences in this area between the existing members as well as between the countries who want to join the EU. The EU should be strict in this regard and require from its future members to make an effort to respect and guarantee human rights.
Furthermore, judgements of all courts should be published in all member states of the European Union. Only publishing all the judgements of all the courts will ensure that entrepreneurs gain confidence in States’ legal order and, as a result, the objectives of single market will be achieved. The EU should also promote the elimination of barriers to the common labour market, i.e. those relating to the employment of citizens from one member state in another member state.
Prime Minister Janez Janša continued the debate by stating that the goal of a Europe whole and free and at peace should be followed.
“When this goal was set and later redefined, no one probably expected that a large part thereof will be fulfilled during the lifespan of just one generation and also in the same time frame when this objective was laid down and largely in contrast with the tragedy that Europe faced in the first half of the 20th century”, said the Prime Minister. He pointed out that EU became smaller in the last year, as for the first time, a member country has left it, and not just any member country, but the very one that represents one quarter of the common market economy and that represented balance between excessive regulation and the advocacy for a free market. “This has changed Europe, and the degradation of the prioritized enlargement has also taken a direction opposite of this goal,” Prime Minister said. He pointed out that at the time when Slovenia entered the EU, enlargement was the number one political topic in Europe, which was also the reason for its success. “This is hardly the case since the first enlargement. We all know that EU enlargement to Western Balkans will be possible when this will actually become a part of the Europe’s general motto, i.e. Europe whole and free and at peace; as long as the enlargement is only considered from the bureaucratic point of view, every detail and obstacle will hinder this process. Therefore, the debate on the future of Europe is also a debate on its enlargement,” pointed out Prime Minister Janez Janša. He also noted that Slovenia has a certain importance in the Western Balkans, “so we are able to help and it is our mission to connect the dots and make this topic a priority in Europe, otherwise the situation will remain unchanged, which means no great shifts are likely to be achieved.”
Dr Dimitrij Rupel continued to say that he was not in favour of countries joining the EU by bending the rules and that the Western Balkans would not be on an equal footing with all other countries. The integration of the entire Western Balkans into the EU will also resolve the borders between countries, Rupel pointed out.
Dr Ernest Petrič furthermore emphasized the lesson that we have all learnt in the Brexit case, which is a loss to the European Union due to the lack of dialogue. He said that more dialogue was needed in order to overcome some of the problems in the individual Member States. It is therefore important that Slovenia also takes the initiative to resolve problems through dialogue.
Furthermore, Petrič highlighted the importance of the problems that people themselves are experiencing and considered that the introduction of the euro and the Schengen Agreement were excellent measures for strengthening the unity of the people in the EU. He thinks it would be necessary to identify those practical matters that could be regulated at European level. In this regard, he highlighted closer integration on the basis of consensus, pluralistic approach and autonomous decisions. Any kind of coercion would be fatal for the European Union and would lead away from the objective expressed by Schuman, he said.
Zofija Mazej Kukovič said that if the EU wants to get closer to its citizens, a great deal of effort will have to be invested by the very institutions of the European Union. Simplification of administration must be a long-term objective. Slovenia must also ensure the existence of a Slovenian language in the EU.
According to Dr Matej Avbelj, not only France and Germany, but the entire euro area should be the core of Europe. With regard to further EU enlargement, he said that a “two-speed” Europe or a “concentric circles” Europe is an important element of flexible integration, which could be one way of integrating the Western Balkans into the European area.
Dr Dimitrij Rupel added that Slovenia could make a name for itself if it could draw up a plan for the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU.
President Borut Pahor emphasised that “As a Slovene, I am also a European, and I am only prepared for the changes that are necessary and beneficial for all if I believe that I will be doing so out of my free will”. In parallel, he expressed his concern about the screaming absence of vibrant and sincere socio-political dialogue. He pointed out that this space should be used for a wide-reaching discussion on European topics, as this will actually mean that we are discussing our own topics and our own future, because we are Europe.
Prime Minister Janez Janša replied that the intention was to open the debate to absolutely everyone. He thanked all the present for taking part in the debate on the future of Europe and expressed his hope that they would also take part in discussions focusing on individual outstanding issues and problems, also within the Bled Strategic Forum at the beginning of September.
The Prime Minister announced that an informal meeting of the European Council will take place on 6 October 2021 at Brdo pri Kranju, which will include a consultation with the leaders of the Western Balkan countries. He also advocated for the so-called “Big Bang Enlargement of the EU”, i.e. the simultaneous admission of at least three Western Balkan countries into the EU.