The political balance within the EU at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic has clearly indicated a direction of significant changes. Initially it seemed that solidarity of some seemingly very friendly countries is simply not to be counted on. However, the common problem of all European countries triggered even bigger solidarity, which led to adoption of decisions on joint assistance to member countries. As the pandemic also highlighted the importance of cooperation among countries at the region level in light of their exceedingly obvious interdependence, Brussels clearly signaled that such cooperation should not undermine the common goals and values of the European Union. Although the European assistance for mitigation of consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic implies new debts for member countries, for many countries it will be an important source of recovery from severe economic consequences of the corona crisis. However, some strongly advocate that the assistance should be conditioned with compliance with European values. This means that the Slovenian foreign policy should not leave a shred of doubt about its respect of EU values. The benefit of supporting the stances of specific Visegrad Group (V4) countries, which are contrary to the stances of the founding nations of the EU, is questionable. At the same time, Slovenia should develop closer relations and resolve some important issues with Croatia. This would be sensible as, in a way, Croatia would then be a regional ally of Slovenia and we could also count on each other within the framework of the EU. Resolution of the open issues is an objective interest of both countries, Slovenia and Croatia, and the time has come to resolve them.
Assistance conditioned with respect of European values
Relevant experiences from the Covid-19 pandemic are also related to the internal developments within the EU. When the corona pandemic broke out, it became clear that solidarity among EU member countries is not to be counted on. According to the statements of Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, ever since the beginning of the epidemic Slovenia has not received a single mask, piece of protective equipment, ventilator or similar item from the European Union. We can rely predominantly on ourselves and our friends in the region. Due to strong pressure from specific countries, in which the effects of the pandemic were very grave and which were threatened with very serious economic consequences, talks on provision of assistance were organized. These were heated and exhausting negotiations in which Italy warned that absence of assistance could be fatal for the survival of the EU. However, only a compromise was achieved and no concession was made with respect to the so-called “corona bonds”, which would have been beneficial for the less rich countries. The main impediments to brokering an agreement were the disagreements between Netherland and Italy regarding conditioned assistance from the European Stabilization Mechanism (ESM) and the divergence of the stances of the South and the North on the issue of joint debt. Nevertheless, the EU managed to find a way to a solidarity-based assistance, and the common problem (pandemic) has at least led to some convergence of interests, if not also united member countries. Furthermore, the EU has demonstrated once again its strength despite the seemingly chaotic way in which the solution was devised and decisions made. However, an important element of this assistance is that some member countries strongly advocate the idea that the assistance should be conditioned with compliance with European values. Naturally, the accurate definition of European values is rather debatable, but it is related, inter alia, to the freedom of media, free and fair elections, rule of law, respect of human dignity and rights, etc. Although such conditions have not yet been formalized, bearing in mind the stances of the richest member countries, it is not impossible that they will be made at the practical level. This is an exceptionally important element, which the Slovenian foreign policy should take extremely seriously.
Act as an active and credible member
It is absolutely necessary to advocate, within our capabilities, that the EU remains, as much as possible, an important integration structure in the future within which all member countries will be able to make progress. However, it would be wrong to expect that the EU will operate in the areas in which it has no jurisdiction at all. The EU does not have a single but a common foreign policy. Specifically, a policy on which member countries have reached a mutual agreement. Nevertheless, in areas that are not covered by an agreement, each member state is entitled to act in its own interest. While obligations and responsibilities of member states are clearly defined, the countries can also demonstrate solidarity. In fact, any solidarity within the EU should be welcomed. It is important to advocate solidarity among member countries, but in no way should a country rely on it. Slovenia can act as an active and credible member within the EU, but it should not rely just on the EU. We need to have friends and connections with countries with which we share some common interests. The importance of relations with neighboring countries has become increasingly evident during the period of corona crisis. The coordination with neighboring countries in solution of migration issues has significantly contributed to resolution of concrete problems and difficulties.
During Janez Drnovšek’s government, Slovenia did not want to establish connections with the Visegrad Group (V4). At the time we somehow believed that we need to be oriented to the West. Specifically, to the ones who were to “get on the first train” to the EU or the “narrow group of EU member states.” We haughtily refused the offer to join the V4 group. However, some former members of the team that at the time had influenced the decision to refuse the offer to join the Visegrad Group nowadays promote cooperation with countries from that region. At the last Bled Strategic Forum, which was attended by some of the most important political representatives of these countries, it was noticeable that Slovenia was bending more towards, if not even considering to join, the Visegrad group (V4+1). This would mean a deviation from the commitments that Slovenia has made on a number of occasions. In example, it’s declared aspiration to be part of the “first speed” rather than the “second-speed” group of EU member countries. Slovenia has declared that it wants to be on the “faster train”, that it favors a “deepened” EU and even supports the idea of “United States of Europe.” Naturally, the EU founding nations made notice of our digression. In fact, at the meetings held at various levels they emphasized that it was necessary to advocate a united and strong EU, which, if you read between lines, means that they are not fully satisfied with some activities of the Visegrad Group member countries. This was a crystal clear signal to Slovenia. Namely, the founding nations do not look favorably on extensions of support to the stances promoting policies that influential and economically stronger EU members perceive as a deviation from the European democratic values.
Politicians will change but relations will remain
Building of relations among countries is a long-term process. Politicians will change, but the relations will remain. However, the foundations of cooperation must be in the interest of Slovenia, not in the interest of some groups that represent only a small portion of the nation.
In the period immediately after gaining independence, the Slovenian foreign policy was not aimed at establishing close relations with former Yugoslavia countries. This is entirely understandable, but relations among former Yugoslavia countries and their relations with the EU and other organizations have changed since then. The mutual relations between Slovenia and Croatia are completely illogical. We never went to war with Croatia, and are together with Croatia in the EU and NATO. Many Slovenian citizens have contacts and friends in Croatia, and vice versa. It would make sense if we would be regional allies, so that we could count on each other within the EU as well. Such a development would definitely be beneficial and in the interest of both countries. It is worth mentioning that the countries that are considered “connected” nowadays, such as the Baltic countries, Sweden and Norway, the Benelux countries, the Visegrad Group countries in the past had serious conflicts and in some cases were even strong adversaries. However, the vicinity, various elements of common history, mutual understanding and a list of other elements prevailed over disputes and disagreements and the countries agreed that cultivating good relations and taking a joint stance on an issue is far more beneficial than cultivating exasperation for domestic political purposes.
It is an objective interest of both countries, Slovenia and Croatia, to resolve their open issues. They were addressed many times in the past, but it often seemed that they were being addressed in order not to be resolved. Nevertheless, despite some opinions that at least the most important issues had been resolved, it has turned out that they are still unresolved. The time has come to resolve them.
Slovenians have strong personal connections with the people in the West Balkans. We have important economic relations and still enjoy a relatively high reputation among the people in the West Balkans countries. We also have things to say about the region. Furthermore, cooperation between Slovenia and the West Balkans countries is an important element of regional cooperation.
Of course, relations with other neighbors are also very important. We have to strive to have good neighborly relations, but when it comes to the relevance of “Slavdom”, we have to clearly advocate preservation of the Slovenian minority.
While able and capable politicians further relations that are in the interest of the ruling structure and yield short-term political and financial effects, statesmen further relations that are founded on the interests of the majority of the nation and constitute long-term foundations for relations beneficial in the long-run.
Ljubljana, 14 October 2020
 IFIMES – The Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies from Ljubljana, Slovenia has a special consultative status within the Economic and Social Council /UN, New York since 2018.
By Ambassador Dr. Jožef Kunič, Member of the IFIMES International Institute, Honorary President of the Slovenian Association for International Relations (SDMO) and former Slovenian ambassador to Iran and France