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The Slovenian Presidency of the EU

January 22, 2008

Washington D.C. – Amidst challenges posed by the process of enlargement, the ongoing ratification of a new reform treaty, and the desire to play a bigger role on the international stage, the Ambassadors of Germany, Portugal, and Slovenia to the United States gathered on Tuesday to discuss the past, present, and future of the European Union at a forum organized by the Elliott School of International Affairs of the George Washington University in Washington D.C.

The three countries have held successive presidencies of the Union starting with Germany in 2006. Germany, Portugal, and Slovenia are also the first member-states to agree on a joint 18-months long program that they outlined together at the beginning of Germany’s six-month term. “The coordination among successive presidencies,” Portuguese Ambassador Joao de Vallera explained, “is now officially included in the new reform treaty that is up for ratification. Our joint program,” he continued “was a voluntary and preliminary exercise to test such mechanism.” Dr. Klaus Sharioth, the German Ambassador, expressed full satisfaction with the process, which is now entering its third and final semester headed by the Slovenians. “This is a very successful experiment,” he told the audience, “and I’m sure that others will follow.”

Under the leadership of Portugal the European Council agreed in December 2007 on the text of a new reform treaty, known as the Lisbon Treaty, meant to be the successor of the Constitutional Treaty that was turned down by the member-states in 2005. Slovenia enters its presidency as the Treaty begins the journey that may lead to its ratification. If the process is successful the Lisbon Treaty may take full effect by January 2009.

Following the Forum at George Washington University, His Excellency Samuel Zbogar, the Ambassador of the Republic of Slovenia to the United States, agreed to sit down with Washington Prism for an interview, outlining the Slovenian agenda for the presidency and addressing matters such as the treaty, further enlargement rounds, Turkey’s bid to accession, the status of Kosovo, and the European position vis à vis Iran.

“The difference between the old Constitutional and the new Lisbon treaty is that the latter has been softened in tones,” Ambassador Zbogar explained to us. “The Constitution part has been taken out so as to not imply that the European Union integrated into one country under one constitution. But other than this the two texts are similar,” he said.

Slovenia plans on focusing its presidency on the strengthening and development of the European Union on several levels. Internally, it promises to push forward the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. “The role of Slovenia as the chair of the EU now will be that of monitoring the ratification process as the treaty travels across the Union and of pushing it forward,” the Ambassador told us. As the head of the EU, Slovenia will also be tasked with overseeing the streamlining of the technical details that need to be sorted out to guarantee a smooth transition to the new system if the Treaty was to be ratified. “For example, the new treaty talks about the institution of a European foreign service,” Ambassador Zbogar explained. “But it doesn’t specify the ways in which this should take form. It is our role now to work out all of these details by the end of the year.”

The first new member-state to hold the Presidency of the European Union, Slovenia – which gained full membership status only in 2004 – is an adamant advocate for enlargement and has made it one of its top priorities. “Two dates, I think, are symbolic of Slovenia’s recent history. First is June 1991,” the Ambassador recalled speaking at the Forum. At the time Slovenia unilaterally declared independence from former Yugoslavia. The foreign ministers of the EU had to meet hastily to discuss the country’s future and the unsettling consequences that such event could potentially have on the rest of the continent. “Fast forward 17 years,” Samuel Zbogar continued, “and here we are holding the Presidency. This is why we are very passionate about the EU, because we recognize what big part it played in making Slovenia in what it is today.” It is because of its faith in the European dream that Slovenia intends, in the next six months, “not only to preserve but also to strengthen and further develop the EU.”

Because of its geographical, political and historical ties to the Balkan region, Slovenia looks eastward when searching for potential new members. Negotiations with Croatia are well underway, Ambassador Zbogar reported. Another group of countries is also eager to start accession talks, such as Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia. The case of Serbia is particularly important to the Slovenians and is among the priorities for the next six months. “We feel that the Serbians have suffered so much during these last fifteen years, with the war, the sanctions and the isolation,” Ambassador Zbogar told Washington Prism on Tuesday. Slovenia and Serbia maintain very close relationships, he explained, both economically and politically. Granted that Serbia will have to hand over former military chief Ratko Mladic to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Slovenia believes that talks with Belgrade should begin.

The question of Serbia brings up that equally delicate of Kosovo. A referendum is scheduled to take place in this southeast province to give the people the opportunity to decide whether they want independence. In all likelihood this is the choice that will be made and it will be up to the individual member-states of the EU to recognize the newly born country. “Our feeling is that most countries will go along with it,” Ambassador Zbogar says. “We Slovenians have a very close relationship with Kosovo, as well as with Serbia, and we’ve been hoping not to have to choose one or the other, but that they would come together finding a compromise that could suit both.” Unfortunately so far such solution hasn’t been found and Serbia does not look favorably to Kosovo’s upcoming referendum.

Although he did not say it explicitly, in talking to us the Slovenian Ambassador hinted at the fact that, if Serbia was promised a track of negotiations that could lead it into the European Union in the foreseeable future, and if simultaneously Kosovo subscribed to the European standards for human rights and pledged to provide minority rights within its border (minority meaning in this case the Serbians who reside within Kosovo), then a path to a peaceful solution could be found.

One of the thorniest issues of the enlargement process remains Turkey and its longstanding accession bid. “Slovenia believes that Turkey is an important bridge between Europe and the Muslim world,” Ambassador Samuel Zbogar told Washington Prism on Tuesday. “However one must be realistic,” he admitted. In fact, although there is an agreement among member-states that accession talks with Ankara should continue, public opinion in several European countries is still very opposed to granting membership to Turkey. “The European Union is an exclusive club and countries must fulfill certain requirements in order to join,” the Ambassador said. Specifically Turkey must prove willing to undertake profound reforms in the realms of the economy, democratic governance and human rights. Turkey must also come to accept and recognize Cyprus as a legitimate member of the European Union and end its blockade to Cypriote ships, which are now barred from docking into Turkish ports.

Slovenian Ambassador Samuel Zbogar concluded with a brief comment on the European position on Iran and the controversy surrounding the country’s uranium enrichment program. “The European Union is involved in negotiations with Iran,” Ambassador Zbogar noted. “However the EU is also supportive of the new wave of sanctions approved by the United Nations Security Council because it didn’t receive from Teheran the response to UN demands that it had hoped for.”

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism – Persian Edition

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