A European Parliament delegation investigating the state of democracy in Slovenia said Friday that public institutions “work well” in the country but raised concerns about polarization and a climate of intimidation.
The delegation’s trip to Slovenia, which included eight MEPs from various parties, sparked an unusually tense exchange among a number of European leaders after Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša called some MEPs “Soros puppets,” a reference to Hungarian-American businessman George Soros, the target of frequent false conspiracy theories with anti-Semitic undertones.
While Slovenia has not presented an overt challenge to Europe’s democratic standards in the systemic way Hungary and Poland have in recent years, the Slovenian government has raised rule-of-law concerns with its delays in appointing officials to a new EU prosecutor’s office and its refusal to fund the Slovenian Press Agency, a domestic public media outlet.
MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, the Renew Europe member who led the delegation representing the civil liberty committee’s Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group, told reporters on Friday that the group found “the public bodies work well” in Slovenia.
Nevertheless, the liberal Dutch politician warned, “there’s also sufficient reason for concern, if you see how pressure on public bodies is growing, how pressure on the media are growing, on journalists are growing.”
As a result, she warned, “You may end up with a kind of climate wherein the media and the democratic institutions do not function properly anymore.”
And it won’t be because “they don’t have the right legal basis,” she added, “but simply because in a climate where the distrust to and fro has risen to levels where public bodies do not work together anymore in the interest of the citizens.”
Janša opted not to meet with the MEPs during their visit, and while he deleted his original controversial tweet, the Slovenian leader on Friday continued to tweet about Soros and retweeted an article from the pro-government Nova24TV alleging a “scandal” with in ‘t Veld’s finances.
A Czech member of the delegation, Pirate Party member Mikuláš Peksa, called on Janša to apologize for his behavior toward the visiting MEPs.
The “attacks on MEPs in the fact-finding mission” are “outrageous,” he tweeted.
“Our goal is to investigate rule of law, media freedom, corruption fairly. Janša should apologise immediately for his conspiracy language,” he added.
In her press conference, in ‘t Veld emphasized concerns about the “tone of the public debate” and polarization in Slovenia.
It is “very striking that members of the government are also engaging in a kind of debate, which I think is unfitting for a civilized and democratic society,” she said. “I think that kind of debate leads to a climate of distrust, hostility and intimidation.”
The Dutch MEP also said the lack of financing for the Slovenian Press Agency “needs to be addressed urgently” and that “we are very concerned about the delayed nomination of the delegated prosecutors” for the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), which was set up to uncover and prosecute misuse of EU funds.
Just last week, European Chief Prosecutor Laura Kövesi told EU justice ministers that Slovenia’s obstruction creates “a prosecution gap in the EPPO zone.”
Other members of the delegation also expressed worries.
“During our Slovenia visit, we hear from every independent institution that they are subjected to personal attacks by the prime minister,” tweeted Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik on Thursday. “These attempts to discredit authoritative watchdogs (like public prosecutors and court of auditors) are a real threat to the rule of law,” she wrote.
But not all members of the delegation shared this view.
MEP Romana Tomc, who is from Janša’s own Slovenian Democratic Party, questioned the mission’s structure and approach.
Belgian MEP Assita Kanko, a member of the New Flemish Alliance — part of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group — told POLITICO that she “grew up in a dictatorship [she was born in Burkina Faso] and can guarantee my colleagues in Parliament and Commission that Slovenia is not becoming a dictatorship.” However, she added, “we must nevertheless fight for press freedom everywhere, also in Slovenia.”
Still, Kanko concluded, “based on our findings, my opinion is that there is no structural erosion of the rule of law.”
That said, she noted, “the tone of public debate is ugly,” adding: “I recommend a Twitter holiday for the Slovenian political class.”
Maïa de La Baume and David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting .