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KRANJ, Slovenia â€”Â Never mind the hundreds of billions in common debt the EU has begun issuing to finance its pandemic recovery, Ursula von der Leyen was focused on a different, more troubled asset Thursday as Slovenia formally kicked off its Council of the EU presidency.
Standing alongside Prime Minister Janez JanÅ¡a at a news conference, the European Commission president issued an implicit but clear warning that her host, and his like-minded illiberal Hungarian counterpart Viktor OrbÃ¡n, were endangering the EUâ€™s credibility by playing fast and loose with fundamental principles of rule of law and democracy.
â€œA presidency has an important role to play on current rule of law files,â€ said von der Leyen, who stood stone-faced throughout much of the event, adding: â€œBecause at such a crucial moment as we collectively prepare and finance our recovery, trust is our most valuable asset.â€
It was the beginning of an unmistakable rebuke of JanÅ¡a, who has been accused of curbing media freedom,Â underminingÂ the work of EU prosecutors,Â weakeningÂ courts and independent watchdogs, as well as waging a â€œculture warâ€ over museums.
Those criticisms have created new pressure on Europeâ€™s dominant political family, the European Peopleâ€™s Party, of which von der Leyen and her mentor, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are members, and which spent years in conflict with OrbÃ¡n before finally parting ways with him in March.
Von der Leyen noted that Slovenia would be responsible for discussion on a report on the state of rule of law in EU countries that the Commission is due to publish later this month, and is all but certain to echo the many concerns about JanÅ¡aâ€™s government. Â
â€œTrust in solid institutions, trust in independent and efficient judicial systems, trust in free and independent and properly funded media, trust that freedom of expression, diversity and equality are always respected and that the rule of law and European values are always upheld,â€ von der Leyen continued, â€œthis is the very essence of the European Union. This is how we earn the respect of the global community and this is the key to recovering and living together as a union.â€
Divisions on display
The fissures between EU leaders, particularly over issues of equality and the protection of minorities, including the LGBTQ+ community, were evident around the table of a European Council summit last week, where there was an unusually impassioned debate over anti-gay legislation in Hungary.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel spoke out about his personal experience as a gay man and his motherâ€™s reluctance to accept his identity. Other leaders also have personal stakes in the debate, including Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who was raised by two mothers and has previously described her struggles with being unable to speak publicly about her nontraditional family.
But pressed about his support for OrbÃ¡n, what he might say to those EU colleagues, or how he would use his presidency to heal the divisions, JanÅ¡a doubled down, insisting that the Hungarian legislation was about protecting the rights of parents to educate their children as they see fit.
â€œWe had a sincere discussion on what human rights are, which rights have priority and where within the specter of European values do we find the right of parents to educate their children,â€ JanÅ¡a said. â€œI would say there were no major differences in terms of values and how we feel about them. The discussion was indeed heated.â€
It was a description very much at odds with the remarkable notes of the summit shared by officials and diplomats, and von der Leyen quickly contradicted him, saying that there was never any dispute or disagreement about the rights of parents.
â€œIndeed, the right of parents to educate their children was not at all disputed,â€ she said. â€œIt was completely undisputed and common ground. The question was â€¦ whether the amendments of existing laws discriminate against minorities. And here we are very clear the protection of minorities is one of the founding principles of the European Union, enshrined in Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, and this is what is disputed in the Hungarian law.â€
She said that the Commission as guardian of the treaty had begun formal investigative and enforcement measures asking Hungary to explain the ramifications of its law for minorities.
A picture speaks
The clear dispute over fundamental rights was a striking feature of the opening news conference for Sloveniaâ€™s presidency and cast a shadow over the ceremonial events in Ljubljana, the capital, and the surrounding countryside, including Kranj, where EU commissioners met with Slovenian national ministers at a conference center, not far from Brdo Castle, a restored 16th-century noblemanâ€™s residence.
But another small controversy played out behind the scenes in the meeting between commissioners and ministers, after JanÅ¡a apparently showed a photo of some social democrats in the European Parliament together with judges, implying politicization of the courts by his political opponents.
JanÅ¡a showed the photo when the rule of law issue came up at the end of his presentation to the commissioners, as he complained that the Slovenian judicial system included some judges with a communist past, according to an official who followed the discussion. JanÅ¡a has often responded to criticism about his countryâ€™s judicial system by saying he is still trying to root out officials with ties to communism.
Von der Leyen reacted with irritation to the picture and JanÅ¡aâ€™s comments and said that judges are allowed to hold personal political opinions, which do not necessarily influence their judgments, according to the same official.
Commission Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans, the most senior social democrat in the Commission and formerly the top official on the rule of law file in the prior Juncker Commission, objected angrily to the assertion.
The incident prompted von der Leyen to include a cryptic line at the end of her pointed remarks about rule of law: â€œAnd to be clear, political dialogue requires respect for all democratic political parties.â€
In a statement issued later by his team, Timmermans said: â€œI simply could not be on the same podium with PM JanÅ¡a after his unacceptable attack on and defamation of two judges and two S&D MEPs. He challenged their integrity because they were in the same picture. Judicial independence and respect for the role of elected MEPs are cornerstones of the Rule of Law, without which the EU cannot function. We can never stop calling out those who attack it.â€
There was also an undercurrent of tension related to JanÅ¡aâ€™s pushback against the EUâ€™s new European Public Prosecutorâ€™s Office (EPPO), and a continuing dispute over when Slovenia might put forward candidates for the office, which is intended to crack down on misuse of EU funds.
JanÅ¡a used the news conference to stress the priorities of the Slovenian presidency, including a renewed focus on EU expansion in the Western Balkans. Von der Leyen said the Commission shared Sloveniaâ€™s goals on that front and would press to open formal accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.
JanÅ¡a also repeatedly commended the Commissionâ€™s efforts on the recovery plan, including its recent approval of Sloveniaâ€™s national initiative totaling some â‚¬2.5 billion.
The ceremonial opening of Sloveniaâ€™s presidency partly reflected a return to normalcy, with a limited number of journalists from Brussels traveling for the traditional briefings and cultural events. But pandemic complications persisted, as some reporters and officials personally tested the EUâ€™s new digital vaccination certificates (and indeed they worked) while others yet to be fully vaccinated had to endure a regimen of continued PCR tests. Mask-wearing and social distancing also remained the norm, especially indoors.
MaÃ¯a de La Baume contributed reporting.