Slovenia's 'Marshal Tweeto' takes on EU presidency

Bloc's rotating leadership falls to Slovenian PM Janez Jansa despite concerns over his democratic record

An admirer of Donald Trump nicknamed “Marshal Tweeto” because of his outbursts on social media becomes one of Europe's top power-brokers on Thursday as Slovenia assumes the rotating presidency of the EU.

Prime Minister Janez Jansa will help to drive the EU’s agenda despite concerns in Brussels over the state of democracy and media freedom in the country.

Mr Jansa, 62, is in his third term in office after mounting a comeback from a spell in prison to retake the reins just before the pandemic erupted.

He says his priorities for Slovenia’s six-month presidency are to protect the “European way of life” and the rule of law.

But he faces protests at home amid claims that his government wants to silence criticism from the media by curbing funds and attacking journalists.

A coalition of media watchdogs wrote to EU leaders the day before Slovenia replaced Portugal at the helm, urging them to “ensure that the presidency is not abused”.

They accused Mr Jansa of “stoking the toxicity of public debate and the smearing of leading critical journalists as part of a programme of intimidation”.

Mr Jansa’s online tirades include an essay entitled “war with the media” in which he saluted Mr Trump’s provocative use of social media.

Last year he sent a premature congratulatory message to Mr Trump after partial results in the US election showed the Republican president in an illusory lead.

He had earlier given his backing to Mr Trump by predicting that eventual winner Joe Biden would be “one of the weakest presidents in history”.

A separate controversy concerns Mr Jansa’s failure to appoint prosecutors to the EU’s new anti-corruption body.

Mr Jansa is accused of vetoing one of the candidates because they had previously investigated him personally.

Critics compare him to Hungary’s strongman leader Viktor Orban, who is at odds with Brussels on a series of issues.

“Stop being soft with wannabe autocrats or else they will gain momentum,” said Daniel Freund, an ecologist member of the European Parliament.

Mr Jansa says his government is the victim of unsubstantiated accusations and says he is committed to freedom of speech and expression.

In a letter to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, he blamed weaknesses in Slovenia’s democracy on the legacy of the former Communist regime in Yugoslavia.

“We do not wish for our work be overshadowed by absurd charges,” he said.

A young Mr Jansa was imprisoned by a military court under the Yugoslav regime in the 1980s.

His “Marshal Tweeto” nickname is a reference to former Yugoslav leader Marshal Josip Broz Tito.

A second stint in prison derailed Mr Jansa's political career after his first two terms as Prime Minister from 2004 to 2008 and 2012 to 2013.

He served six months behind bars for alleged corruption over an arms deal, but the conviction was later annulled and Mr Jansa was released.

In 2018, his nationalist Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) came out on top in a general election, although other parties initially refused to co-operate.

The success of his anti-immigrant party came after half a million migrants passed through Slovenia during the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe.

Last year, he emerged as Slovenia’s leader for a third time after a liberal prime minister resigned and the SDS formed a four-party coalition.

He promised to cut red tape to boost Slovenia’s economy and bring in military conscription to strengthen the country’s army.

The think tank Civicus says the Covid restrictions which followed shortly afterwards were used as a pretext to restrict civil liberties.

Civil society groups in Slovenia have had their funding cut on the grounds that the money is needed to tackle the pandemic, according to Civicus.

Protests against Mr Jansa’s government have persisted despite fines of up to €10,000 ($11,800) for those involved.

In February he survived a vote of no confidence in parliament which he described as a “destructive farce”.

Slovenia’s presidency means Mr Jansa’s government is responsible for managing EU legislation and ensuring co-operation between countries.

The presiding nation is expected to act as an “honest and neutral broker” to ensure the smooth running of the bloc.

Ljubljana’s priorities include cyber resilience, EU enlargement in the Balkans and the economic recovery from the pandemic.

Slovenia, which joined the bloc in 2004, is due to receive €1.8 billion of EU funds aimed at assisting its recovery.

In the lead-up to Slovenia’s presidency, Mr Jansa has sought to display commitment to the EU and the rule of law.

“All our neighbouring countries are with us in the European Union, and they are not only friendly countries, but are, together with us, a part of the common European family,” he said.

But he warned that Brussels must acknowledge the differences between its 27 members and avoid what he called a “one size fits all” approach.

Referring to Slovenia’s breakaway from Yugoslavia in 1991, he said: “We would never have succeeded 30 years ago if we had spoken and done only what was easy and agreeable.”

Updated: July 1st 2021, 10:49 AM