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EU integration for a shared space of common values

Interview with Gašper Dovžan, State Secretary of Slovenia

Gašper Dovžan. Source: Government of Slovenia.

Cohesion policy is typically a shared-management area within the EU policy framework. The Member States’ decisions and aims at Council level are therefore most relevant. This is even truer with the advent of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), where Member States have a large say not only in implementation but also in ultimately deciding whether funding has been allocated correctly, not least in view of the conditions on rule of law. Slovenia held the Council presidency for the second half of 2021. It led the process of having 22 national recovery and resilience plans approved by the Commission, one of its aims being to prevent unnecessary delays in paying the first instalments of NextGenerationEu money to the Member States. As State Secretary at the Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Gašper Dovžan led many Council meetings. He looks back* at some core issues discussed during the Slovenian presidency, ranging from the rule of law to progress towards EU membership for candidate countries.

Resilience in a crisis, whatever its nature

With the war in Eastern Europe raising concerns of an entirely different nature, State Secretary Gašper Dovžan is clearly pleased to discuss the recent Slovenian EU presidency, which was an intense and interesting period for him. ‘This presidency is very precious for us because we take it very seriously and try to do as much as we can. In Slovenia, as one of the 27 EU Members, we are glad the presidency brings some attention to less visible Member States and can give them more leverage. We used our brain power to make the most of it, and I think we were quite successful’. Since then, the war in Ukraine has occupied much of his attention, in several respects. ‘We had an immediate crisis with our staff at the embassy. We led a successful evacuation to save our diplomats, including one journalist, from the zone in Kyiv which was being bombed at the time’. He points out that agendas had to be adapted everywhere in the Council: in the working parties, in the different Council configurations, etc. ‘This aggression really became the top issue , including bilaterally with many Member States, but also with many other countries in the world with whom we had to coordinate our actions. We were also very much engaged in dialogue with Ukraine on how we could help and what we could do’. He also underlines the dialogue his ministry undertook with Russia several times, starting with the handover a protest note, to get the message across clearly to the ambassador. ‘We were very active in making clear we disagree profoundly with what is going on and that this is definitely not the same country we used to maintain friendly relations with’.

“This aggression really became “ the top issue…”

He gives an example of how the war has changed narratives, including outside the EU context. ‘Slovenia is currently running for the UN Security Council seat for 2024 and 2025. Among the group of Eastern European states from which one non-permanent member can be elected, the other candidate running against us is… Belarus. So you can imagine that this now puts our candidacy into a totally new perspective. And I think the voting in the General Assembly on the resolution was a good indicator, but we have to make sure that Belarus is also recognised as a country that is really instrumental to Russian aggression. I think in the EU this is very much the perception. But in Africa and some other continents this may not be the case, so there is a lot of work for us in this respect’.

Another important matter demanding his attention was facilitating the process of adopting sanctions. ‘Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a major role in facilitating the implementation of these sanctions in the line ministries, which is so complex’. He gives an example illustrating the urgency needed. ‘We were really happy that the Central Bank was very cooperative and invested a lot of forward thinking on what is good for the people. We had a Russian bank, Sberbank, in Slovenia. The Central Bank took over a closure, shutting down and selling the Slovenian branch of Sberbank to one of the systemic banks in Slovenia. Basically, the only impact onthe bank’s rescuers was that the bank was closed for one day’. He points out that the smoothness of such an operation is very important for financial systems all over Europe and other Member States have faced similar issues. ‘For us it was stunning to implement such a complex operation in two days. And interesting to see how difficult measures enjoyed broad public support, even from the business community’.

The State Secretary also highlights the humanitarian aspect. ‘Of course we participated in the first donor conference on Ukraine, donating substantial sums to various UN-led agencies like OCHA and UNHCR, but also to the International Committee of the Red Cross and Caritas International’. He explains that, through the line ministries, Slovenia is also involved in welcoming refugees. ‘Not that many have arrived yet [in March], but we are preparing to take some of the burden off the neighbouring states around Ukraine’. He also refers to how Russian aggression directly affected Slovenia, in connection with the bombing of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. ‘Our consulate has been demolished. This has placed additional strain on relations between Slovenia and Russia. Our flag was burned, but fortunately our honorary consul and his staff were safe because they were in the shelter at the time. But some others in the same building did not survive. So the war has also hit Slovenia directly.

“We wanted to develop mechanisms that would be ready to use whenever the EU is faced with a major crisis, in whatever area.”

The war in Ukraine and the subsequent crisis affecting Europe touches upon an issue that was a key priority during the Slovenian presidency: ‘The question of resilience was at the centre of our policy’. He explains that all sorts of crises have hit the EU in the last decade and a half and that the EU has needed a lot of time to come up with appropriate responses. ‘Our assessment was — and still is — that crises are in a way part of our lives. They just shift from one area to another but come constantly. We wanted to develop mechanisms that would be ready to use whenever the EU is faced with a major crisis, in whatever area ‘.

Gašper Dovžan notes that crises should be approached not only defensively but also proactively. ‘Because every crisis is also an opportunity. And this is what we have been pushing for’. In his view, the Council has had some successes but the debate is far from over. ‘We developed a set of conclusions that were adopted at the General Affairs Council in November 2021, but there is still a long way to go since there are many aspects. At that time, we focused on specific crises like cyber-attacks and natural disasters, but also migration and refugee waves’. He explains that, even when they had previous experience and there was some form of preparedness, the discussions were sometimes quite theoretical. ‘But now we have been struck by this huge multifaceted crisis and I think that the preparations we initiated, and our new approach of seeing the EU also as a community that has to be able to react when a crisis comes, helps us to not lose focus on the EU’s policy priorities’. He sees the success of this new approach reflected in the EU’s reaction to Russia’s aggression. ‘This time the reactions to the crisis in Ukraine were very fast and covered a lot of areas, and the mechanisms agreed upon were tested. In a way, it is good to see this followup. As the European Union, we are constantly challenged and forced to develop and adapt to all sorts of emerging threats’.

“This time the reactions to the crisis in Ukraine were very fast and covered a lot of areas, and the mechanisms agreed upon were tested.”

Offering not too distant prospects

One of the focal points for the Slovenian presidency was good neighbourhood relations, not least with the Western Balkans. He observes that there are many issues still to be resolved in this region, but there is also huge potential. ‘The fact is that the region is surrounded by EU Member States and that the countries all have EU prospects. Ever since the Thessaloniki Agenda, they have all basically entered into that process of convergence, some having made big steps, some of them smaller steps’.

The State Secretary highlights the importance of not losing sight, including within the Member States’ capitals, of the strategic dimension of this enlargement process amid its difficulty and technical complexity. ‘Because if the EU is not enlarged, and if this process is too slow, then of course the countries that would like to join the EU as soon as possible will seek other opportunities and may even lose focus. If it is going to take so long for enlargement to actually happen, they may not be really that committed and seek and develop very good relations with other third countries that are not necessarily pursuing the same goals. There is not always such a clear commitment if the EU is too slow and sends ambiguous messages. This is why we were so committed to the EU-Western Balkans summit and to the messages emerging from the summit: that enlargement is really a key priority for the EU and the only prospect the EU has in mind for the region’. He adds that there will be additional efforts, such as a political push forward, including through annual high-level political meetings between the EU and the Balkan region to assess and increase progress towards enlargement.

“… if the EU is not enlarged, and if this process is too slow, then of course the countries that would like to join the EU as soon as possible will seek other opportunities…”

Gašper Dovžan points out that the current crisis in Ukraine puts everything into a totally new perspective. ‘I think that, apart from Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have provided wake-up calls. We see a major shift in the eastern partnership, with consequences for EU policy in the region’. He observes that now, partly because of the EU’s constructive responses, the number of countries wanting to join has grown again. ‘We would like to persuade our EU partners that we should really treat this situation very similarly to the way we treated the fall of the Berlin Wall . At that time, it was seen and used by the West to integrate the East in order to reconcile the continent and to ensure a bigger area of stability, human rights, rule of law and all the values that were already present in the West and not in the East. And I think that we are now in a similar moment’.

“We would like to persuade our EU partners that we should really treat this situation very similarly to the way we treated the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

He explains that enlargement is of course a difficult process that requires various reforms. ‘But we should not forget that it is a driving force for people to still believe in and seek a future in their own country. If they don’t have this prospect, why should they stay at home? If the outlook for Ukraine is that it will sooner or later fall into Russia’s sphere of influence, even if there is no more war, then the people will leave anyway, leading to migration flows. So this is not the answer’. He ponders the need to keep this strategic goal in mind. ‘And the same goes for the Western Balkans. We really have to invest some forward thinking in the enlargement debate, as well as ensuring that the political messages are very clear and that the EU is committed to integrating those countries as soon as possible. It’s the only policy that has a transformative power’.

The State Secretary also notes there has been some backsliding. ‘It is very difficult to maintain the same standards across the EU. But in moments like this, we see how important it is not to leave countries in a vacuum without clear future prospects in Europe. Because otherwise things can deteriorate’. He also raises the spectre of spill-overs from Ukraine to some other countries in the Western Balkans. He considers this a dangerous development, making it all the more important to underline the EU’s commitment and role in offering the legal, economic and political framework for a way forward. ‘It does not really matter if the national and ethnic borders are not in line. That is not the point. The point is that there is shared space of common values where cross-border trade is ensured, where a free flow of capital and people is ensured. And, of course, where human rights are guaranteed ‘.

“The point is that there is shared space of common values where crossborder trade is ensured, where a free flow of capital and people is ensured. And, of course, where human rights are guaranteed.”

Gašper Dovžan puts such commitment into a wider historical perspective, referring to the European Communities in the eighties when there were profound discussions on how to deal with Greece and Spain. ‘Back then, there wasn’t this idea of complete legal alignment, that all the reforms had to be implemented at short notice. The idea was to ensure that they were part of the same family and that they had a chance at convergence’. He notes that new members’ convergence trajectories have often been linear and thinks that, for these countries, being in the EU economic area creates very strong forces towards convergence. ‘I don’t believe we would see divergence in the long run. Nowadays some sceptic voices refer to Article 7 of the Treaty and to backsliding. But I don’ think this is an argument against enlargement. It just demonstrates we have instruments we can use’. He adds that in Europe there is an increasingly common media space that draws attention to any potential backsliding. ‘I think that in the long run this also ensures convergence, and is something we need to take into account when talking about future enlargement. This is one of the aspects we have tried to explain, including during our presidency. Now, with the crisis in Ukraine, I think it is more understandable for others’.

“Nowadays some sceptic voices refer to Article 7 of the Treaty and to backsliding. But I don’ think this is an argument against enlargement. It just demonstrates we have instruments we can use.”

A new boost to convergence

Given the economic and social downturn caused by the pandemic, convergence within the EU itself was also a major issue to tackle during the Slovenian presidency, including through the national recovery and resilience plans (NRRPs) in particular. During the Slovenian presidency, the Finance Ministers approved all NRRPs assessed by the Commission — 22 in total. The State Secretary highlights the importance for his country of getting this process started and keeping it moving in order to avoid delaying the recovery. ‘Our presidency was very concerned to keep the EU progressing and avoid the impression that the EU is not really a union, where nothing is possible or everything takes too much time. For me, coming from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and sitting on the General Affairs Council, it was pretty much about ensuring that the EU was capable, within a year or so, of moving from political commitments to concrete deliverables. I think this was one very important thing for us’

He explains that every Member State has different challenges with its NRRP. ‘And the Commission was very careful about what these recovery plans could include. So it was really tough negotiating with each and every Member State before the adoption’. He says that there was also an awareness that, in macro-economic terms, this all meant expanding the Maastricht rules. ‘This is not necessarily good in the long run. And the Germans made a huge concession, a huge step towards integration, somehow accepting the idea of a communautarisation of common debt. Basically, this was something new and therefore it was understood that the Commission needed to be fully involved, so that even the most sceptical Member State would maintain the necessary trust in the whole process’.

“… accepting the idea of a communautarisation of common debt.”

Another point requiring the Slovenian presidency’s attention was conditionality. ‘This was part of the deal: some of the Member States, as well as the European Parliament, were really insisting on getting this conditionality instrument in place so that the funds would be scrutinised and would actually be used in the future according to the goals set’. He reiterates how important it was for Slovenia’s presidency to keep the process moving quickly. ‘Regarding the substance of the issues, ensuring compliance in relation to the projects and the set priorities was really in the Commission’s own hands. As was ensuring that the Recovery and Resilience Fund would be used not only to relieve economic regression, but also towards transition — a real transition to make the EU more resilient and increase its potential for development and growth in the future’.

He expects the crisis in Ukraine to have a different impact on those programmes. ‘But not necessarily a negative impact, because the green transition will now become even more important with the need to move away from oil and gas. As will the digital transition, in the face of cybersecurity and similar threats, so that we also develop security capacities in a really robust manner. This should really be our thinking: to use the current crisis to adapt and transform better’.

Rule of law and mutual trust

Slovenia had identified another priority for its presidency, the third on its official list: ‘a union of the European way of life’, the rule of law and equal criteria for all. The State Secretary believes these discussions on rule of law will continue, possibly influenced by what is going on in Ukraine. ‘It will stay on the agenda for various reasons because sensitivities are there. The Court of Justice of the European Union will continue and further develop its jurisdiction. The Commission will also not hesitate to use all its powers and legal instruments to ensure that its interpretation of ‘rule of law’ prevails when it comes to certain breaches of EU law. When it comes to the question of unsound financial management of EU funds, too, I think that all legal obstacles are now gone ‘. He expects that all this will raise a lot of attention in the European Parliament and concludes that the discussions will definitely continue.

Our presidency was very active in the Council to ensure a spirit of mutual trust, including in our rule of law discussions, trying to ensure some convergence. I think the atmosphere during those discussions was always good and respectful. And I think we progressed’. He specifies that, during the Slovenian presidency, the Rule of Law Report was debated twice. ‘Including the country-specific part regarding two of our neighbours, Italy and Croatia, which was not a very easy thing to do. We also had a debate regarding Article 7 with the two Member States involved in this procedure. We somehow succeeded in increasing mutual understanding and refocusing on respect, learning from each other and understanding each other’s sensitivities, while at the same time being very clear about what we understand by European values, rule of law, etc’.

ECA findings can build trust in equal treatment

Discussing the role the ECA could potentially play in these discussions on rule of law, particularly in view of the financial conditionality governing RRF expenditure, the State Secretary believes it was logical to link financial aspects to values, as one of many aspects of the rule of law. ‘Of course in 2020 the major step forward was agreeing on NGEU and, as I said before, this communautorisation of public debt. This platform gave several Member States standing in the sense of an even greater stake where and how this money will be spent. I think this is very major and also more than just a justification. Since we are all spending EU taxpayers’ money, it has become very crucial that the rule of law is also ensured in practice’.

In this context, the State Secretary finds it only logical that the Commission, too, should be subject to a certain balance of power, including oversight. ‘And here I think the ECA can do a lot to ensure that there are no double standards, really focusing on how everything is being assessed and how the Commission is handling the cases. I think it is very valuable to have an external institution that is not so political and analyses things mainly through numbers and facts and can ensure that the work done by the Commission also enjoys credibility: one that cannot easily be criticised or even accused of double standards. I think it is very important to have such an analysis, including for the Commission’.

Here Gašper Dovžan raises another point about the rule of law: ‘The EU institutions all take very important decisions, often including through legal acts. But they aren’t subject to any external oversight when it comes to the rule of law. Just think of how long we have been debating the question of the EU joining the Charter of Human Rights, which would at least provide some external checks for the people working on the legal cases in question’. He observes that whenever there is discussion about the rule of law, it is always the institutions, and the Commission in particular, making some assessment about the situation in the Member States. ‘But the Commission also needs to respect the rule of law. So the checks that exist for this purpose should be used. I have high hopes that the ECA will also play a part at least in the financial aspect of this to ensure that the Member States feel they have been treated fairly, and that rather than being only the Commission’s assessment, the ECA has also had a second look. If the ECA and the Commission are of the same opinion, then of course I think this is much more critical and powerful’. In this respect, he sees an analogy with previous ECA reports relating to the European Semester and the Stability and Growth Pact, which assessed whether the Commission had treated Member States in a consistent, coherent and equal manner.

“I have high hopes that the ECA will also play a part at least in the financial aspect of this to ensure that the Member States feel they have been treated fairly…”

Asked which topics could be interesting, in the Council members’ view, for the ECA to look at more closely, the State Secretary has to contemplate for a while. ‘Many policy areas are critical at the moment, such as enlargement or migration. You know we had a number of bilateral policies towards third countries. And when it comes to migration, the Commission has been doing a lot of work to ensure consistency between those policies. I think that this is something worth looking at. Because we are investing, or should be investing, in making sure people who might consider migrating have prospects at home. How do we organise those policies when it comes to environment, when it comes to economic development, the rule of law, etc.? Sometimes we see that these policies are not consistent and I think it would be very good to have a more financial analysis in this respect’.

In Gašper Dovžan’s view, these remain key issues for the future. ‘We will have to invest a lot of money to be able to contain irregular migration flows. We need to make sure EU policies from various departments, but also Member States policies — because what we have to attempt here is to develop a common approach — are all consistent, coherent and mutually supportive — this is very important!’ He identifies enlargement as another policy area where further improvements can be made. ‘There must come a point when we see that integrating candidate countries into the EU will cost less than delays in doing so. This is an argument that should also appeal to the frugal ones among us, because sometimes they only see one side of the coin. But the problem is that if you lose those third countries in the long run, you will have nothing. This is very easy to say politically, but if there were some numbers to clarify and support this, this would be very relevant’.

“There must come a point when we see that integrating candidate countries into the EU will cost less than delays in doing so.”

Another possible topic where he believes the ECA could make a contribution is the single market. ‘We see a very big asymmetry between the integration of various fundamental freedoms. For example, when we speak about the free flow of goods, people and capital — in this area there is a high level of integration, and major progress has been made. The big question, though, concerns services. Services are something that many Member States require — more integration can be achieved here. And our feeling is that this integration is lagging behind’. Gašper Dovžan suspects there are various reasons for this and mentions two: ‘First, it is a highly complicated area, partly because it is very much regulated at the national level. And second, the more developed Member States that can compete with higher wages obviously prefer to use the freedom of movement of people to attract highly skilled people for services. So the question is: where is the right balance?’

He gives a concrete example. ‘We see that less developed regions are losing many doctors to western and northern Europe. But insurance companies in these countries that are losing doctors are not willing to pay for the cost of treatment in the other countries, which sometimes would be more beneficial. He considers this to be a fundamental problem of which only the political aspect is visible, not the financial one. ‘The fact is that Member States on the periphery sometimes get very frustrated. This balance should be part of the debate on cohesion and convergence’.

“The fact is that Member States on the periphery sometimes get very frustrated. This balance should be part of the debate on cohesion and convergence.”

In relation to the ECA, the State Secretary underlines his very positive impressions of our institution and the good cooperation he has experienced with us. ‘During the presidency, we really had good relationships. We also tried to be of use to the ECA. We also benefitted very much from the work of the press representative for the Council, who came from the ECA and was very much appreciated’.

The ‘future of Europe’ debate revisited

The war going on in Eastern Europe will undoubtedly affect the future of Europe, including that of the EU. According to the State Secretary, the conflict and all its impact will influence the Conference on the Future of Europe, giving it a different dimension. ‘I expect the influence to be a positive one. We see that we need more unity, and only when we achieve unity can we take a step forward. This is very important to learn. And of course we should also hear what the citizens have to stay, ensuring that all those proposals find their way into the final report’.

“… we need more unity, and only when we achieve unity can we take a step forward.”

He refers to the big role the French presidency has to play in this process. ‘It’s also very important that we keep the Conference as a conference — it is not a decision making body, more a consultative one. But we have to take the final recommendations very seriously. This is where I see the role of the French presidency — really including the Member States very early in the debate, so that they are on board when they discuss the implementation of the recommendations. I am under no illusion that all the recommendations will be implemented but I think we need a debate on that’. He adds that it is also important to close the Conference chapter as soon as possible so that citizens can see that something is being done, having made a commitment as far back as the 2019 European Parliament elections. ‘It is important for citizens to see they have had an impact in contributing to proposals, some of which will be implemented and some not. But the proposals that aren’t implemented may be politicised in a positive manner and debated in election campaigns’

Another argument Gašper Dovžan sees for involving the Member States sooner than later is to rally support for the most crucial proposals. ‘If really far-reaching changes need to be made, then Treaty changes possibly come into the picture. And whenever we’re speaking about such steps, all Member States have to be on board. My hope, my wish, is that we maintain unity and the citizens will feel they have contributed — not only symbolically but also intellectually –to the EU taking a step forward’. He admits that for him the whole Conference exercise was challenging, navigating between, on the one hand, Member States’ positions and to get them on board and, on the other hand, the ambitions — ‘sometimes big ambitions’ — of the European Parliament. ‘But I think that somehow we manoeuvred successfully through the whole process. I hope the French presidency will be able to do the same. And we will be able to say that, on the whole, the Conference — despite the pandemic and despite the delays — has been a success and has at least contributed to the next step in EU integration’.

This article was first published on the 1/2022 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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