Johansson to broach issue of media freedom on visit to Slovenia

Brussels – European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson will start a two-day visit to Slovenia on Thursday to discuss the country’s EU presidency preparations. She intends to raise the issue of media freedom and pluralism as well. Slovenia should not underestimate the risk to its international reputation when it comes to this, Johansson has told the STA.

The visit is primarily aimed at backing Slovenia’s preparations for its EU presidency in the second half of 2021. The talks will focus on Schengen, migration and security as well as the situation of media in Slovenia, she told the STA ahead of the visit.

Johansson pointed out that this was not her portfolio, but that of European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova, who has raised concern over the situation on a number of occasions.

Since there is cause for concern, Johansson intends to raise the issue of media freedom and pluralism as well. She has also warned about harassment of journalists and verbal attacks against them.

Johansson would also like to discuss with the Slovenian government the financing of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA). “As far as I understand, it’s regulated in the law,” she said, hopeful that this issue could be resolved in a positive way.

“Slovenia should not underestimate the risk to its international reputation when it comes to media freedom and pluralism”, especially just before taking over the EU presidency, she said, noting that these two principles “are a fundamental prerequisite for democracy”.

The European Commission puts great emphasis on this issue as any pressure exerted on media freedom or pluralism or even attacks against them are also an attack on democracy, she said, adding that this was the first time this kind of concerns were raised about Slovenia.

The commissioner also pointed to the first annual Rule of Law Report, saying that the Commission already raised concern over the relevant situation in Slovenia in the September 2020 document. “As far as I understand, the situation has deteriorated since,” she noted.

The Slovenian EU presidency could be a story of recovery as Europe will be going from pandemic mode to recovery mode during that time. Johansson hopes that Slovenia will take this opportunity “to be at the forefront of recovery in Europe”.

Touching upon travel amid the pandemic in the summer, she is optimistic member states will not adopt discriminatory measures. She also hopes that come summer, the infection rate will go down and Europe could be reopened.

In June, right before the start of Slovenia’s stint at the helm of the EU Council, Johansson plans to propose the Schengen reform. As part of the preparations, the first ever Schengen forum was launched in November to exchange views with various stakeholders. The second will be held in May.

The Commissioner highlights the need for political governance of the Schengen area and the upgrade of the Schengen evaluation system.

She also stresses the importance of lessons learned from the pandemic. The current legislation is based on a threat that comes towards a single member state, however the pandemic is widespread, she said.

In many situations, measures other than internal border checks are more effective, such as police cooperation and information exchange, she said, adding that the Schengen Information System should also be used more consistently.

She also hopes the Schengen zone could be extended. The Commission has assessed that Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria are ready for this step, but it is up to member states to decide on this, she said.

Johansson’s main priority of her five-year term is to find a way out of an asylum reform deadlock. It seems that the new migration pact, proposed last year, has been at a standstill due to disagreements over migrant relocation, but the commissioner is optimistic.

She does not think the pact has been blocked, saying that everyone has been constructive in these efforts and there has been progress.

She hopes that Portugal’s EU presidency will be able to close one or two segments of the pact, otherwise the Slovenian presidency will pick up.

She thinks mandatory solidarity, and not mandatory relocation, is a way forward as the latter is not popular in many member states. Now we should discuss what is a meaningful form of this solidarity apart from relocation, she noted.

The commissioner for home affairs will meet Slovenian Interior Minister Aleš Hojs on Thursday. She is also expected to meet Marko Gašperlin, the Slovenian who chairs the Frontex management board.

Moreover, a meeting is scheduled with Foreign Minister Anže Logar and relevant parliamentary committees.

After her visit, the commissioner will fly back to Brussels from Zagreb, so she will have the opportunity to meet Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and Interior Minister Davor Božinović.

Regarding reports about violence against migrants perpetrated by the Croatian police, she said she was not satisfied with the situation and there were concerns, however the country had made progress. The Croatian authorities “are investigating and there are consequences for individuals that have been proved taking part in illegal activities”.

Moreover, the first independent monitoring mechanism is in the works, a pilot project that is to be first launched in Croatia. “Bosnia-Herzegovina also has homework to do when it comes to migration management and migrant relocation within the country,” she said.

Asked what did she think of ideas about redrawing Western Balkan borders in light of efforts for security and stability in the region, she said that “the European Commission fully respects sovereignty of those countries and their borders, we have no other ideas about their borders”.