2019 European elections: The moment of truth for Europe and a window of opportunity for Slovenia
Painful challenges and discrete achievements
Historians may remember recent years as the very moment when a member state left the European Union for the first time in history. The bloc's unity is vacillating after having dealt from day to day with existential crises, from the rise of populism to the 2015-16 migration crisis, let alone the heated debate on the rule of law across Europe. Mistrust remains rampant. According to a 2018 Eurobarometer survey, 48 % of Europeans claim not to trust the EU, including 56 % of Slovenes. The EU's eastern and south-eastern neighbourhood is prone to instability.
The current turmoil overshadows several good news stories on the economic side. The European sovereign debt crisis is now behind the bloc, with even Greece showing signs of solid recovery. Launched in 2014, the "Investment Plan for Europe" triggered more than EUR 315 billion of private and public investment in the real economy all over Europe. In July last year, Jean-Claude Juncker defused a looming trade war with the United States after meeting with US president Donald Trump in Washington.
South of the Alps, Slovenia recorded sustained growth. Its handling of the refugee crisis, though not beyond reproach, did not wreak havoc. Its past and current governments have proven unexpectedly stable. Many prospects persist for digitalisation and the circular economy.
A chance for solid hard-fought compromises
Less than a hundred days before the European elections, populist and Eurosceptic parties are on the rise. The political map of Europe is shifting towards the siren songs of nationalism and protectionism against the backdrop of disillusion towards traditional politics. The historic alliance between the moderate right and the social-democrats may well lose its majority for the first time. According to recent estimates, their MPs may plunge to 45 % of the share of seats from the 53 % today.
The EU's agenda has rarely been filled up with so many much-needed reforms, among which are also the reinforcement of the Schengen area, tough negotiations on the new Multiannual Financial Framework and increasingly impatient candidate countries. Other less-known issues also abound, such as the need to elaborate a digital single market, the finalisation of the Banking Union and the struggle to reach a net-zero emissions target for 2050.
In the aftermath of the Brexit saga and hitherto unseen rifts among member states, high achievements are not yet unlikely. Minority coalitions are sometimes prone to govern better, as the Slovenian case shows. Results may well hinge upon the personality of the future president of the European Commission, on the EU's ability to bring together people from all sides of the political spectrum as well as on constructive states.
The rebirth of an "Adriatic Tiger"
Slovenia will face its share of challenges. Among the first tests for the country is the choice of a new Slovenian Commissioner, which may well remain the popular Violeta Bulc or fall to another charismatic leading figure with a strategic portfolio.
Yet, the major future opportunity for the country is Slovenia's presidency of the EU Council in the second half of 2021. Although less significant than in 2008, the event will be a unique occasion for the country to showcase its potential, to try and shape niche policies in which Slovenia could have a strong voice and to strengthen its presence and expertise in EU institutions.
In the long term, the country must brace itself for unexpected new troubles and identify its weaknesses in the light of the threats Europe is facing. To some extent, the changes taking place in the Western Balkans might cause a decreasing interest in the matter in Brussels, which could be a new chance for Slovenia to take the lead on some regional issues.
Europe may take a path that is perilous for the Slovenian economy or stability, with the country having little influence to change the course of events. For the six months to come, with a lame-duck European Commission, Brexit becoming a reality and a new balance of power being shaped, the ball is now in the court of Slovenian political parties.
*Charles Nonne is a political analyst and press correspondent based in Ljubljana, specialised in European affairs and the Western Balkans. He is currently working for media outlets and think tanks both in France and Slovenia, among which is also the French-speaking newspaper Le Courrier des Balkans. He co-founded a Slovenian youth association called the "Association for the promotion of European values and federalism - Društvo Mladi Evropejci", which endeavours to share knowledge and awareness about European issues among the Slovenian youth.