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Eye on Slovenia as it prepares to take EU Presidency

As the Portuguese EU Presidency comes to an end, all eyes will now focus on the next six months, which will see Slovenia presiding over the EU-27 as from 1 January.

This is a big historical achievement for a country which has been an independent state only since 1991, and which joined the EU in 2004, making it the first of the 10 member states forming part of that same enlargement to preside over the Council of the European Union. Since we are not used to seeing such a novel country occupying the EU top seat, it is worth having a brief look at what this country has to offer.

Slovenia is a relatively small country with a population of just over two million people. It is situated in the southern part of central Europe, bordering Italy to the west, the Adriatic Sea to the southwest, Croatia to the south and east, Hungary to the northeast and Austria to the north. Its capital city is Ljubljana with a population of less than 300,000 people, but which is very rich in culture and historical legacy. Throughout its history, Slovenia has been at the heart of big empires, most notably the Roman and Holy Roman Empires and the Austrian Empire, later known as Austria-Hungary. But with the collapse of the latter in 1918, Slovenians shortly joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was later renamed as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Following the re-establishment of Yugoslavia at the end of World War II, Slovenia became a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Present-day Slovenia was formed on 25 June 1991, upon its independence from Yugoslavia, acquired in a brief military conflict during a ten-day war with Yugoslavia.

This year’s adoption of the euro is only proof of Slovenia’s prospering economy. The country had a flourishing economy and strong market ties with the West when it gained independence. Although it comprised only about one-thirteenth of Yugoslavia’s total population, it was the most productive of the Yugoslav republics, accounting for one-fifth of its GDP and one-third of its exports. Today, Slovenia may well be considered as the most prosperous country of transition in Europe, with modern industry, a well-educated and productive workforce and effective political and economic institutions. Its per capita income is now 86% of the EU average and consistently receives the highest credit rating of all transition economies. The fact that it will preside over the EU so early in its membership is a sign of great trust and recognition of its achievements so far.

Assuming the EU Council Presidency is no joke and presents a great deal of responsibility, so much so, that preparations may well stretch over three years. In fact, way back in 2005, Slovenia had already launched a detailed preparation programme to facilitate the successful conduct of its mission and take advantage of the opportunities that presidential term brings. The Slovenian Presidency will also be the last of this trio of presidencies which also comprised Germany and Portugal, and which together formulated a joint 18-months programme to enhance the continuity of the council’s work and to make the initiatives dealt with in the Council more sustainable. Slovenia’s own Presidency programme was unveiled on 28 November, and focuses mainly on the future of Europe including the ratification of the new Treaty, the continuation of accession negotiations and the role of the EU in general. Additionally, special focus will be dedicated to the implementation of the new Lisbon cycle for growth and jobs, energy, climate change and relations with the Western Balkans. But according to Slovenia’s State Secretary for European Affairs Janez Lenarcic, the Slovenia’s main goal will be to boost the effectiveness of current EU policies, rather than propose endless initiatives.

The Treaty of Lisbon will undoubtedly be on top of Slovenia’s agenda, as the incoming Presidency has high hopes of seeing through the ratification of the new Treaty. To set the ball rolling, Slovenia is expected to ratify the Treaty itself at an early stage of its Presidency. The Slovenian Presidency will also see the Lisbon Strategy enter its next cycle and during the upcoming Spring European Council, EU leaders are expected to decide on its implementation. It is not expected that the Slovenians will come up with any radical changes in this field, but they are likely to focus more on research and development, supporting small and medium-sized enterprises and creating more flexible labour markets.

Expectations on climate change are now also on a high following the crucial Bali breakthrough last week. Next January, the European Commission is expected to present proposals on the fight against climate change, with special focus on emissions trading, carbon capture and storage and renewables and the EU-27 are still to agree on how to implement the ambitious climate change targets, in view of the international summit in Copenhagen due to take place towards the end of 2009. There is also much to be done in the liberalization of energy and gas markets. One would consequently also expect particular attention by the Slovenian Presidency to these burning issues.

Geographically, historically and in many other ways, Slovenia is close to the Western Balkans. So achieving stability in the region and possibly find the right ways to deal with this unfinished story is also of immense importance for the Slovenian Presidency. This could be done most notably by reaching Stabilization and Association Agreements with all the Western Balkans, which would mean an important step towards EU membership. Nonetheless, Kosovo will remain a pressing issue and the Slovenians are aware that the settlement of the Kosovo issue and the subsequent EU mission there are a big challenge for Europe, adding that this will be the main item on the EU’s foreign policy agenda in the first half of 2008.

EU enlargement poses another challenge. Here again, the Slovenian Presidency seems geared up to generate progress in the Croatian and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s negotiation process. Slovenia also supports Turkey’s accession to the EU and plans to open new negotiation chapters with the country. This however is subject to the pace of the adoption and implementation of the acquis and other relevant criteria. So these should be an interesting six months for the EU, particularly in seeing whether Slovenia will manage to see through the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by all EU-27 in order to avoid having another institutional impasse. Such an accomplishment will certainly be a big prize for this usually unsung albeit brave country whose achievements – political and economic - in such a short spell have exceeded the expectations of many. (independent.com.mt)