11 Sep 2019, 09:45 AM

STA, 10 September - Janez Lenarčič, the Slovenian EU commissioner-designate, has been assigned the portfolio of crisis management in the next European Commission, as President-elect Ursula von der Leyen announced the distribution of posts. First political reactions indicate the majority perceive the portfolio as lightweight.

As Von der Leyen announced, the job assigned to Lenarčič would correspond to the portfolio of humanitarian aid and crisis management in the outgoing commission, which has been the responsibility of the Cypriot Hristos Stilianides.

Lenarčič, so far Slovenia's ambassador to the EU, said that crisis management was a significant but demanding field of the EU's work, involving the saving of lives and helping people in need.

The department he will head is in charge of European civil protection and humanitarian aid, as part of which Lenarčič will have the role of the European coordinator for rapid response. He will be supported by the directorate general for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).

"The number of people in need of help keeps increasing world-wide due to the consequences of ever more dramatic climate change and violent conflicts," Lenarčič said, adding that growing humanitarian needs should be matched by proper and effectively applied funding.

He believes that the portfolio he was entrusted with addresses a vital part of the EU's response to topical global challenges, which call for sustainable, coordinated and innovative action by the EU and member countries.

Lenarčič understands the portfolio assignment as an acknowledgement of Slovenia's "strong tradition in providing humanitarian aid and civil protection".

But first political reactions indicate the majority perceive the portfolio as lightweight compared to other departments in the new Commission, even as they acknowledge that this is an important area for the EU.

The coalition Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ) and Social Democrats (SD) were the only parties to label the portfolio as an important department. Other parties, even in the ranks of the coalition, were more critical.

Analysts provided a range of views about the relative importance of the department, with one saying this was not a department with political weight, and other that "Slovenia's role in Brussels is small" due to a lack of strategic policy.

Among the eight Slovenian MEPs, the news invited mixed reactions, with some members of the EPP finding the portfolio not to be one of the key ones, as it was one of the last to be announced by the Commission president-elect.

The four MEPs from the ranks of the coalition Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ) and Social Democrats (SD) welcomed the pick as a serious and demanding portfolio, saying that crisis management was an exceptionally important field.

Some MEPs from the EPP meanwhile said that the portfolio does not bring value added, and that it was obviously not a key one, while others believe that it is an exceptional opportunity for Slovenia, a demanding job involving a lot of responsibility.

Pm Marjan Šarec said the portfolio was good. "Crisis management includes humanitarian aid, civil protection - helping people in accidents and during crises. Slovenia is famous for having a good relief and protection system," he said.

"It reacts very well in crises that hit the population and others learn from us. I am confident the Slovenian commissioner will be able to contribute a lot in this field," Šarec added in a statement while visiting Russia.

Defence Minister Karl Erjavec, whose department covers civil protection and disaster relief, similarly said the Lenarčič portfolio was "important for Slovenia and the EU".

The commissioners-designate will undergo hearings before the European Parliamentary committees between 30 September and 8 October, after which the plenary is to take a vote on the line-up as a whole at a session running between 21 and 24 October.

Lenarčič said he would use his time over the next few weeks to prepare thoroughly for the hearing.

Five years ago, Slovenia's original commissioner nominee Alenka Bratušek failed to pass the committee hearing, so she withdrew her bid. The government then nominated Violeta Bulc, who went on to become transport commissioner.

10 Sep 2019, 11:29 AM

STA, 9 September 2019 - The coalition reaffirmed its commitment to honour the fiscal rule in drafting the budgets for the next two years as it met in Brdo pri Kranju on Monday. The ceiling for total expenditure was set in April, but the budget bills will be endorsed only after the latest economic forecasts are released, said Finance Minister Andrej Bertoncelj.

"We're waiting for the last economic forecast and then we'll be able to complete the puzzle with greater certainty," Prime Minister Marjan Šarec said after the meeting of senior coalition officials.

The government macroeconomic forecaster IMAD will release its latest forecasts for the next two years on 19 September.

This is also the date of the government session dedicated to the budget bills, which must be sent into parliamentary procedure by 1 October.

Bertoncelj warned coalition officials today that both the Slovenian and foreign economies were cooling. "Let's hope that the economic forecasts will not change much or else a new round of talks will be needed," he said.

However, he noted that Slovenia's economy had been expanding nicely and that its GDP growth would stand at around 3% in 2020.

The ceiling for the government spending in 2020 had been set at EUR 10.45 billion and coalition officials agreed today to stick with it. The talks on the ceilings for individual departments also concluded last week.

"We're committed to drawing up the two budgets in line with our domestic fiscal rules and our priorities, which are development, welfare and wages," the finance minister said.

The appetites of budget users are always bigger than the possibilities and "it's our job to put it in the frame of our economic growth and fiscal rule," he added.

Neither Bertoncelj nor Šarec would go into detail but the issue of too high social transfers was highlighted.

Šarec said the Labour Ministry was a very big budget user. People have a hard time accepting the fact that the monthly minimum wage matches monthly welfare allowance, he said.

"It's clear that the measures introduced during the crisis do not make sense today. But if the economic situation deteriorates, a different kind of measure will be on the table," Šarec said.

The bill abolishing a special bonus for welfare recipients engaged in part-time work is already in parliamentary procedure, but the head of the Modern Centre Party (SMC) deputy group, Igor Zorčič, said there was no particular eagerness about this, even within the coalition.

Statements after the meeting suggest that the new budget documents will allow for the renovation of cultural buildings, investments into development, and defence.

Šarec expressed regretted that there were so many legal restrains. The dynamic part of the budget is extremely small, mainly because of the fiscal rule. "We have the most rigorous fiscal rule in the EU and this is something we should discuss," the prime minister said.

Šarec also said the opposition Left had not promised to support the budget yet.

The Left, which supports Šarec's minority government, made its support for the budget conditional on the implementation of an agreement to abolish to-up health insurance this year.

The Left has also been criticising the government for raising defence spending. But Šarec said today that if Slovenia has an army it must be well equipped, also because of the country's international commitments.

"We cannot simply abolish the army if the Left says we don't need it," he added.

In contrast, Defence Minister Karl Erjavec thinks defence spending should be higher than 1.08% of GDP as planned for next year. He said the army must be modernised regardless of Slovenia's commitments to NATO.

Šarec, who had indicated he may seek a confidence vote on the budget documents for 2020 and 2021 as a way of checking support for his minority government, has not reached a final decision on the matter yet.

The coalition wants the budget documents to be backed by 46 MPs to avoid being overrun by a veto in the upper chamber. But in order to secure such a support, it will need to get the Left or some other party on board.

06 Sep 2019, 18:11 PM

The covers and editorials from leading weeklies of the Left and Right for the work-week ending Friday, 06 September

Mladina: Health insurance a difficult problem

STA, 6 September 2019 - The left-leaning weekly Mladina argues in its latest editorial that the system of top-up health insurance in Slovenia is an example of systematic corruption par excellence. It is clear that the lobbies and politicians involved will not give up this money easily, the paper says.

Editor-in-chief Grega Repovž is very sceptical of the message coming from the coalition and the Left - that they have found common ground on abolishing top-up health insurance by folding it into mandatory health insurance.

It is not that their intentions are not sincere, it is simply that health insurance is very much an ideological issue, linked with the opposition New Slovenia (NSi) and its predecessors, SKD and SLS, and the opposition Democrats (SDS), he notes.

Since its introduction the top-up health insurance has been an "additional contribution or tax for healthcare" and health insurers have been acting as "some kind of private tax administration collecting only this tax".

Citizens can seemingly choose which insurer they want - initially there were just two insurers, Adriatic Slovenica and Vzajemna, Triglav entered the marked much later. Adriatic Slovenica was initially let into the game only to disguise the true nature of Vzajemna.

The system, conceived by long-term head of the ZZZS national public health insurance fund, Franc Košir, has subsequently turned out to be one of the worst cases of privatisation of public money ever.

"Vzajemna seemed like the best idea in the world. Its founding was overseen by ZZZS itself." It was conceived as a company whose manager and shareholder becomes anyone who pays the insurance and thus becomes a member. And formally, this still holds true today. "Can anyone even object to this concept?"

But in fact, the legislation was amended already when Vzajemna was founded to allow a group of people manage a part of public funds and it has remained so until this day.

"Vzajemna is controlled by the same lobbies today only the people who run things are different."

Its powers expand beyond any political borders today and stretch into the business world, with the former CEO of poultry producer Perutnina Ptuj, Roman Glaser, holding a great deal of power.

Vzajemna also has some EUR 100 million of reserves in deposits and other financial investments and can invest them in line with the wishes of those who have power.

"It is therefore clear that all these lobbies and lobbyists, hired consultants and also politicians and public office holders work against any government that attempts to sort out this issue. It has been so for the last sixteen years. It is such easy money that nobody will give it up easily," Repovž says under the headline It's Systemic Corruption.

Reporter: Gov’t staffing scandal deserves a closer look

STA, 2 September 2019 - Looking at the downfall of Brane Kralj, the secretary general of the ruling Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ), the right-leaning weekly Reporter says that this is Šarec's first serious mistake since taking office and a signal from networks of power that he should not be too single-minded.

"Nobody is innocent in the political drama that unfolded last week. But it appears this was a carefully planned skirmish involving networks that control state property, whereby Šarec received a rap on the knuckles for the first time," the paper says in Final Warning.

The scandal shows that the government is engaged in the same sort of political staffing as its predecessors. "Prime Minister Šarec cannot say any longer that he is different, that such things do not happen under his watch."

Delving into the details of the fateful call Kralj made to the chief supervisor of the Official Gazette, Irena Prijović, Reporter says DeSUS president Karl Erjavec soliciting the call is less likely than the theory that the chief supervisor of Slovenian Sovereign Holding (SSH), Karmen Dieter, told Kralj to contact Prijović directly.

"Irena Prijović is not a woman that would falter as soon as she gets a call from the secretary general of a ruling party, and neither is she a flawless Virgin Mary. Her statements about 'brutal pressure' have to be taken with a dollop of salt: Prijović is considered the right hand of Borut Jamnik, the greying wonder boy of the (para)state sector, the nephew of the once influential SocDem politician Breda Pečan."

The commentator describes Jamnik and Prijović as having "literally kidnapped corporate governance", weaving a web of power that has political backing from the SocDems. "They are both political appointees and for years they have been wandering from one post in state-owned companies to the other."

"Since Jamnik has grown over politicians' heads, they have clipped his wings and now he is striking back. The Official Gazette scandal is probably revenge for loss of influence at Telekom Slovenije," Reporter says.

Looking at the uncertainty in autumn, with the looming passage of the budget bills and the Left making its support for the minority government conditional on health insurance reform, the paper says the Official Gazette scandal was "a warning of sorts to the prime minister that networks will bring down his government if he is too single-minded".

All our posts in this series are here

06 Sep 2019, 12:30 PM

What follows is a weekly review of events involving Slovenia, as prepared by the STA.

If you’d like to keep up on the daily headlines then follow those here, or get all our stories in your feed on Facebook.

FRIDAY, 30 August
        LJUBLJANA - Slovenia's economy expanded at an annual rate of 2.5% in the second quarter of the year in real terms, or by 2.6% when adjusted for season and working days, the Statistics Office said. Both figures indicate a considerable slow-down compared to the previous quarter.
        LJUBLJANA - The shareholders of Telekom Slovenije, the majority state-owned telecoms incumbent, endorsed dividends of EUR 4.50 per share, which makes for a total dividend payout of EUR 29.3 million. This is in line with the proposal by management and significantly below EUR 14.30 per share that the shareholders secured last year.
        LJUBLJANA - The group around fuel retailer Petrol reported sales revenue rising by 15% to EUR 2.73 billion in the first six months of the year, with its net profit up by 4% to EUR 40.7 million year-on-year. Operating profit rose by 23% to EUR 66.1 million.
        MEŽICA - Tab, the Mežica-based maker of starter batteries for cars and industrial batteries, said it was mulling a partnership to branch out into the production of lithium-ion batteries of the kind used in electric cars. CEO Bogomir Auprih said the decision would be made by the end of the year.
        BLED - A Ljubljana-based company reportedly in Chinese ownership bought two four-star hotels, Kompas and Lovec, in the popular holiday resort of Bled. The value of the deal is not known, but news portal Siol said it could be around 10 million euro.

SATURDAY, 31 August
        DENVER, US - Defence Minister Karl Erjavec and Major General Alenka Ermenc, the chief of the general staff, visited the Colorado Army National Guard, the Slovenian Defence Ministry said, noting Colorado is a US federal state with which the ministry has been cooperating within the State Partnership Programme for 26 years.
        LJUBLJANA - Pilots at Adria Airways, Slovenia's airline in German ownership, announced the were planning three three-day strikes next month starting on 8 September. They want to force the management to sign a new collective bargaining agreement.
        LJUBLJANA - Some 200 animal rights and environmental activists urged Agriculture Minister Aleksandra Pivec to resign, as they protested against the authorities' plans to cull endangered brown bears and wolves. They believe she is unaware of the role of sustainable agriculture and only promotes the arguments of farmers.

SUNDAY, 1 September
        WARSAW, Poland - President Borut Pahor was among world leaders that took part in a ceremony in Warsaw marking the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War on Sunday, commenting that the thought accompanying him throughout the commemoration was Antigone's "I am not here to share in hate, but in love".
        ANDORRA LA VELLA, Andorra - Slovenian rider Tadej Pogačar won the 9th stage of the Vuelta, the tour of Spain, in his biggest career achievement to date. His compatriot Primož Roglič came in third to advance to 2nd in overall rankings.

MONDAY, 2 September
        BLED - The two-day Bled Strategic Forum (BSF) opened with addresses by senior Slovenian and UN officials who highlighted stability and sustainability as well as fighting climate change as the main factors for Slovenia and the EU and the world. PM Marjan Šarec called for a unified and coordinated approach to global challenges such as climate change, water supply and food security.
        LJUBLJANA/BLED - President Borut Pahor and his visiting Estonian counterpart Kersti Kaljulaid noted genuine friendship between the two nations and many shared interests, as they addressed reporters after holding official talks. Pahor labelled the two countries as success stories. Kaljulaid said that Estonia and Slovenia advocated a strong Europe with clear goals such as the fight against climate change.
        PREVALJE - Lek, the Slovenian subsidiary of drug maker Novartis, aborted its EUR 150 million investment into expanding production in the northern town of Prevalje where Lek has been present for more than 40 years. The decision appears to have been made due to lower demand for generics.
        LJUBLJANA - Economy Minister Zdravko Počivalšek was announced as the only candidate for the top job at the Modern Centre Party (SMC). The election congress will be held on 21 September.
        LJUBLJANA - Eligma, the Slovenian company providing smart commerce solutions, announced it had received a EUR 4 million investment from the Swiss Pangea Blockchain Fund and Bitcoin.com to finance its expansion in the global market.

TUESDAY, 3 September
        BLED - President Borut Pahor met a number of foreign senior officials on the sidelines of the Bled Strategic Forum, including Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto and Matthew Palmer from the US Department of State. Foreign Minister Miro Cerar met his Spanish counterpart Josep Borrell as well as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, Secretary General of the Union for the Mediterranean Nasser Kamel and Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto.
        LJUBLJANA - In the wake of a rift between the minority government and its opposition partner the Left, there have been speculations about the coalition turning to New Slovenia (NSi) for cooperation, but the conservative NSi dispelled any doubts by saying it did not support the government and that there had been no talks about possible cooperation.
        LJUBLJANA - The parliamentary Commission for Oversight of Intelligence and Security Services will draw up a report on illegal migrations in collaboration with the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) to propose a set of measures, including stricter asylum legislation, its chair Matej Tonin told the press after the commission debated the impact of illegal migrations on organised crime on the basis of a DCAF report.
        LJUBLJANA - Two Slovenian researchers were among the of starting grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC). Nejc Hodnik from the Chemistry Institute received EUR 1.5 million for a project which focuses on the development of very stable nanostructure electrocatalysts. Matjaž Human from the Jožef Stefan Institute will get EUR 1.5 million to explore whether it is possible to successfully integrate lasers into living cells.
        PAU, France - Slovenian cycling star Primož Roglič won the tenth stage of the Vuelta a Espana race, the 36.2-km individual time-trial in France's Pau, taking the race leader's red jersey.

WEDNESDAY, 4 September
        ŠIBENIK, Croatia - President Borut Pahor has addressed a renewed appeal to Croatia to accept the final ruling of the arbitration tribunal on the Slovenian-Croatian border, indicating that this would affect the Slovenian government's decision on its membership of the Schengen zone.
        LJUBLJANA - The Infrastructure Ministry released an improved draft of the National Energy and Climate Plan, a key document setting the course of action for ten years until 2030, which should be sent to Brussels by the end of the year. Most notably, the country's goal is now to increase the share of renewables to "at least" 27% by 2030, as opposed to "a 27% share" in the first draft.
        LJUBLJANA - A group of activists helping asylum seekers accused Slovenian police of systematic infringement of international conventions by pushing illegal migrants back to Croatia and preventing them from filing asylum applications. Asylum Taskforce claims that refugee camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina are full of people who had been pushed back across the border, often in very violent ways.
        BLED - Iran does not see a chance of negotiation with the US until the US returns to the Iran nuclear deal and until it lifts sanctions, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi has told the STA. He believes it is still possible to save the historic 2015 deal, but it will not be easy.
        LJUBLJANA - The ruling coalition and the opposition Left, which has been threatening to withdraw support for the minority government, have brought closer together their views on the Left's proposal to abolish top-up health insurance by folding it into mandatory health insurance as of 2021. However, detailed calculations are yet to be made taking into account long-term macroeconomic and demographic projections.
        LJUBLJANA - Slovenia is up five spots in the latest biannual global Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, standing at 36th place among 140 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum (WEF). In the 2019 survey, Slovenia scored an average of 4.3 out of seven points based on assessments in 14 elements of competitiveness in four key categories.

THURSDAY, 5 September
        LJUBLJANA - Interior Minister Boštjan Poklukar is known for saying the Slovenian police are fully in control of migration. "If this was not the case, we would have more illegal migrants in the country, at railway stations, cities and abandoned buildings," he told the STA in an interview. He also praised police cooperation with Croatia and Italy.
        BLED - The executive director of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), Slovenian Nina Gregori, told the STA that asylum procedures should be made more efficient and swifter, and member states' standards for granting the asylum status should be unified.
        LJUBLJANA - The government adopted a first draft of Slovenia's priorities during its stint at the helm of the EU in the second half of 2021. The priorities are divided into three groups, focusing on a safe and sustainable EU which is based on the rule of law, State Secretary Igor Mally said.
        LJUBLJANA - The government adopted legislative amendments to provide effective legal remedy against infringements in public contracting procedures and boost the independence of the National Review Commission. The amendments will make it possible to challenge decisions by the National Review Commission at the Administrative Court.
        LJUBLJANA - The Court of Audit lambasted the Health Ministry for poor planning of ten emergency departments around Slovenia, an EU-subsidised investment valued at around EUR 76 million. It said the project was not based on factual analysis, disregarded the geographical needs for new casualty departments, and was planned in such a way the departments could not be completed in time or within the budget.
        LJUBLJANA - President Borut Borut Pahor conferred the Golden Order of Merit on the world-renowned Indian conductor Zubin Mehta, who was recognised for his contribution to music and the inspiring effort to connect people and nations with this form of art. The ceremony came ahead of a concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Mehta, which wrapped up the 67th Ljubljana Festival.

06 Sep 2019, 11:15 AM

STA, 5 September 2019 - The government adopted on Thursday a first draft of Slovenia's priorities during its stint at the helm of the EU in the second half of 2021. The priorities are divided into three groups, focussing on a safe and sustainable EU which is based on the rule of law, State Secretary Igor Mally told the press.

 The priorities take into account Europe's key challenges, said Mally from the prime minister's office, adding the preparations for the presidency were in full swing.

Each of the three groups is further specified, explained Mally, the architect of the Marjan Šarec government's EU policy.

Security and international affairs will give a certain focus on the Western Balkans and on migration.

Efforts regarding the Western Balkans will focus on the region's development and economic progress as well as on its EU integration.

The second group will try to enhance the rule of law and the EU's basic values by modernising judiciary and improving cooperation between the judiciary and internal affairs organisations.

Asked whether the stalled implementation of the border arbitration decision on the part of Croatia would also be part of efforts related to the rule of law, Mally said he hoped "the arbitration matter" would be resolved before Slovenia assumed EU presidency.

The third set of priorities will give much focus to challenges of sustainable development, said Mally, pointing to the challenges of climate change and energy.

In this respect Slovenia will put great emphasis on social convergence, development of green technologies, digitalisation, circular economy and sustainable agriculture.

Mally said that depending on the situation in the EU, the draft priorities would be improved and changed until Slovenia assumes the six-month presidency on 1 July 2021.

Improvements and changes could be made due to Brexit, talks on the EU's next financial period, and due to the priorities to be set by the new European Commission.

In determining Slovenia's priorities, the government had in mind that a certain topic is of priority at EU level, that an area is important from Slovenia's aspect, and that its administration has the required know-how for it, he explained.

Mally said it was Slovenia's aim to get more active in the priority areas in the period leading to the presidency to raise its profile both in Brussels and elsewhere.

He added Slovenia was in intensive talks with Germany and Portugal, the other two countries forming a trio of EU presiding countries.

The fact is that some 80% of the presidency's agenda is inherited from previous presiding countries, so there is only a 20% leverage to stir the work of the Council of the EU and leave a mark, Mally said.

The government will brief parliament on the priorities and take into account its possible recommendations.

Slovenia's presidency is estimated to cost EUR 80 million.

05 Sep 2019, 13:22 PM

STA, 5 September 2019 - Interior Minister Boštjan Poklukar is known for saying the Slovenian police are fully in control of migration. "If this was not the case, we would have more illegal migrants in the country, at railway stations, cities and abandoned buildings," he told the STA. He said the country was cooperating well with Croatia and Italy.

 "Slovenia being a safe country is a fact confirmed by international comparisons and many countries envy us on this," Poklukar said in an interview with the STA.

He believes that the statistics on the foreigners apprehended prove that police are on top of things.

Slovenia has apprehended more than 9,600 people this year and some 460 persons have been returned to Slovenia from Austria, Italy and Hungary. Poklukar believes this shows that only few people avoid being caught.

He pointed to the beefed up security measures such as additional fences on the border and high resolution systems of video- and thermal cameras.

According to the minister, police are also successfully preventing migrant smuggling by individuals and criminal rings mostly from the Balkans and Slovenia.

Investigators have formed special task forces to deal with this and police are cooperating well with Frontex, Europol and Interpol.

Poklukar also praised cooperation with other countries. Cooperation with Croatia has improved significantly since the 2015 and 2016 mass migrations, he said.

Slovenian police officers are cooperating in mixed patrols with Croatian and Italian counterparts. The deal on the mixed patrols with Italy envisages such cooperation until the end of September.

"We are evaluating the situation on a daily basis and I have found them to be successfully preventing illegal human trafficking," Poklukar said about the patrols.

He is confident that the success of Slovenian police will be recognised by Italy. He reiterated Slovenia opposed a fence on the Slovenian-Italian border for historical reasons and because it would disturb the lives of locals.

The country is also bothered by the fact that Austria continues to conduct controls on its border with Slovenia, an issue Poklukar plans to discuss with his Austrian counterpart in Ljubljana next Monday.

According to the minister, Slovenian police are also monitoring the migration flow in Balkan countries, in particular in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and are helping protect the borders in Serbia and North Macedonia.

Four new police attaches are to be deployed to Skopje, Rome, Zagreb and Vienna shortly.

Asked whether the mass influx of migrants such as the one Europe witnessed a few years ago could happen again, Poklukar said that there was some fear that the migration flow would enhance every autumn due to upcoming winter but not in the scope as in 2015 and 2016.

He said Slovenia was ready for a potential influx and expected Croatia to protect the EU's external border as efficiently as Slovenia is protecting the Schengen border.

05 Sep 2019, 09:27 AM

STA, 4 September 2019 - President Borut Pahor has addressed a renewed appeal to Croatia to accept the final ruling of the arbitration tribunal on the Slovenian-Croatian border, indicating that this would affect the Slovenian government's decision on its membership of the Schengen zone.

Croatia must foremost meet all technical criteria to join the Schengen zone, but the Slovenian government will "sooner or later have to accept a decision on that after the European Commission has assessed that Croatia is close to meeting all the conditions," he told the press after a meeting with the Croatian and Austrian presidents in Croatia on Wednesday.

He said that dialogue would be necessary at that point, but Slovenia's decision would be made easier if Croatia fulfilled its obligations with regard to the border. "This is perhaps an invitation to our Croatian friends to think about that in the coming months," Pahor said.

Asked to comment on the statement, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović said she was confident about the support of all member states when it came to Schengen zone membership, since this was in the interest of everyone. She reiterated Croatia's position that Slovenia and Croatia are friendly countries capable of overcoming open issues.

President Pahor was also quizzed about why Slovenia is erecting additional fencing on the border with Croatia. While he said it was his "great and sincere wish that ... the Slovenian government can remove the technical obstacles from the Slovenian-Croatian border," he noted that in the absence of a European policy, each country was resorting to tackling illegal migrations independently.

The statements came after the traditional annual meeting of the Austrian, Croatian and Slovenian presidents, which focused on the future of the EU and enlargement of the bloc, Croatia's EU presidency in 2020, the Three Seas Initiative and climate change.

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen expressed the belief that in October the EU will okay the start of membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia. As for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, he said they were having more problems.

All our stories on the border dispute are here

04 Sep 2019, 15:55 PM

STA, 4 September 2019 - Iran does not see a chance of negotiation with the United States until the US returns to the Iran nuclear deal and until it lifts sanctions against Iran, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi has told the STA. He believes it is still possible to save the historic 2015 deal, but it will not be easy.

The Iranian diplomat, who talked to the STA on the sidelines of the Bled Strategic Forum, said that saving the deal would require real determination on the part of the remaining signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is officially called.

He explained that when the US decided to leave the JCPOA 18 months ago, the three European signatories - France, Germany and the UK - asked Iran to stay in the deal and they will find practical solutions in order to compensate for the absence of the US and let Iran benefit from the lifting of sanctions.

"There are joint statements at the ministerial level between Iran and foreign ministers of the remaining participants in the JCPOA in which they committed themselves to find those practical solutions in eleven different areas, like banking, trade insurance, transportation, investment.

"But as a matter of fact they have failed to do that in the past 18 months, they have not been able to create even a single banking channel for their own companies to do business with Iran. I don't want to say they don't want it, but they are certainly not able to do that."

Araghchi notes that every deal is based on a balance between takes and gives. "Iran's gives are exactly the same, but Iran's takes are now next to zero because of the reimposition of US sanctions."

He says that a deal like that cannot last. "We need to restore a balance. What we expect from Europeans is to restore the balance ... create an atmosphere and mechanisms to let Iran enjoy from the benefits of the deal."

"Since that has not happened, we have started to reduce our commitments in order to restore the balance from the other way. We gave Europeans a whole year before we did that and we gave them enough chance, we gave diplomacy enough chance but it didn't work.

Iran is now reducing its commitments, but it does that "step by step, two months between each step, so there are still windows for diplomacy. I hope Europeans can use those windows to save the deal."

Araghchi welcomed the latest initiative from French President Emmanuel Macron to solve the situation, which he says has been developed in communication between Macron and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

"Now we have a better understanding of each other, we have made good progress but there are still some differences that we have to overcome," he said, adding that France too still needed to overcome differences with their own partners in and outside Europe.

The Iranian official does not see a possibility for Iran to sit down with the US at the moment, noting that Iran negotiated with the US, Russia, China and the three European countries in good faith.

"We concluded the deal in good faith and we implemented the deal in good faith and there more than 15 reports by the IAEA confirming Iran's full compliance to the deal."

"So what was the result - the US withdrawal from the deal, reimposition of sanctions and the policy of maximum pressure. So why should we negotiate with them any more? Our trust and confidence have been totally lost."

Iran would be willing to re-enter negotiation with the US if the US lifted the sanctions, especially oil and banking sanctions. "If Iran were able to sell its oil and take the money back, then we go back to the full implementation of the JCPOA."

Araghchi does not see a chance of a meeting between President Rouhani and US President Donald Trump as long as the maximum policy pressure is in place and as long as the US is out of the deal.

Commenting on relations with Slovenia, Araghchi said: "Slovenia and Iran enjoy a very good relationship based on mutual interest and mutual respect ... We have good economic relations, they could have been much much better if there were no US sanctions."

He noted untapped opportunities, adding that all channels between the two countries were open and active. He said that President Borut Pahor's successful visit to Tehran in 2016 helped the expansion of relations.

The Iranian official is having bilateral consultation at the Foreign Ministry in Ljubljana today.

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04 Sep 2019, 12:33 PM

STA, 3 September 2019 - The parliamentary Commission for Oversight of Intelligence and Security Services has discussed foreign intelligence services' setting up businesses in Slovenia, establishing that security mechanisms to prevent such companies from operating in the country are not working.

The commission discussed evidence gathered by two investigative journalists about a business model of foreign intelligence services which set up companies for their countries to avoid embargoes and to secure the necessary funds for their own networks, chair Matej Tonin told the press after Tuesday's closed-door session.

He highlighted a number of companies of the Azarov family of former Ukrainian PM Mykola Azarov, who had close ties with Russia, which did business here between 2007 and 2016.

While they were under embargo in other parts of Europe, the companies were not banned in Slovenia, nor were their assets frozen, said Tonin.

He explained they had done business in the country freely until they left in 2016 out of their own accord.

"It is worrying that safety mechanisms are not working in such cases," said Tonin, noting "this is not the first such case".

The commission took several measures to address the issue, but Tonin would not disclose them to the public.

04 Sep 2019, 10:29 AM

STA, 3 September 2019 - The traditional high-profile panel on the Western Balkans at the Bled Strategic Forum (BSF) on Tuesday heard the participants note that it was high time for the countries of the region to join the EU as they were making serious progress, and that the EU should not forget about the region while dealing with internal issues.

The debate initially revolved around the appointment of Matthew Palmer of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs of the US Department of State as a special envoy to the Western Balkans.

Palmer told the panel that what the US had done was "demonstrate responsiveness to the demands by partners and allies who have told us that we are not sufficiently engaged with the Western Balkans".

According to him, the US supports the goals of helping North Macedonia and Albania open EU membership negotiations, facilitate dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, and supporting deep reforms in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the benefit of all its people.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić first half-jokingly said he "expected nothing" from Palmer, but then added that the appointment was a sign that the US wanted to have a clearer presence in the region.

"It is certain that he will have a lot of work and his term should last until the relationship between Belgrade and Prishtina gets resolved," Dačić said, adding that Serbia would try to be efficient and constructive in the talks with Kosovo.

According to him, Serbia supports visa liberalisation for Kosovo and opening of EU accession negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania. He admitted that the leaders in the region should express more solidarity among each other.

This was a good point of reference for Kosovo Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli, who admitted that the responsibility was on the shoulders of the region and that constructive relations with the neighbours should be established.

But he also lamented the fact that Kosovo "remains the only place deprived of the opportunity for its people to travel into the Schengen area without time-consuming, expensive and degrading procedures".

Pacolli also stressed the importance of peace, saying that "Serbia and Kosovo need peace immediately", while adding that "we need someone who knows to talk a little bit loud to us" in reference to Palmer.

From the perspective of a country that has made the biggest progress, Montenegrin Foreign Minister Srđan Darmanović said that "we are clearly frontrunners in the process" but that the region would be a "success story only when all of us get in there".

He hopes that North Macedonia and Albania are given a chance in October and the EU accession talks start as they have worked hard towards this goal. "We also expect from the EU to know what to do in the Western Balkans."

According to Darmanović, it is high time for this as the negotiations had stalled. "We can understand there are some serious issues in the EU, including Brexit and the rise of populist parties", but the EU should not forget about the Western Balkans.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov expressed the frustration for his country "losing almost a generation" while being frozen in the status of a candidate country, while making a huge progress and recently making a name deal with Greece.

"We have reached a compromise, something very European, and something that is very rare in the region," he said, adding that it was thus high time to start the accession talks instead of discussing historical disputes as the young people were leaving the country.

"If Europe fails us this year, then I'm afraid there is no European perspective any more," Dimitrov added, arguing that the message from the people would be that "we should not bother resolving difficult issues".

Speaking on behalf of Albania as a former minister and MP, Majlinda Bregu of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) said in reference to the Western Balkans' progress in EU accession that "I feel that we are mired in gloom every time we try to take a step forward".

She believes that the "EU will not be enlarged with the Western Balkans, but be completed with the Western Balkans", and that "nobody has the luxury to lose time any more", as people are leaving the region.

The point that the region was approaching a critical moment was also stressed by Foreign Minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina Igor Crnadak, who said that the EU needed to "understand that this process needs to be completed; it is so natural, so normal".

"It's high time that we understand that we are at a some kind of a turning point," he said, while expressing the frustration that his country had not been able to form a government ten months after the election.

But Crnadak nevertheless noted that there was one positive thing, with the European idea being very much alive among the people, who believe that the rule of law as well as security would be enhanced with the country's EU accession.

03 Sep 2019, 09:51 AM

STA, 2 September 2019 - The Bled Strategic Forum, the top event on Slovenia's foreign policy calendar, opened in Bled on Monday dominated by calls for action on climate change and appeals to multilateralism. The focus was on the challenges the EU faces and the role it could and should play in the new world order.

Slovenian Prime Minister Marjan Šarec, delivering the opening address, focused on the importance of ensuring stability and security through sustainability, and stressed that there was "an urgent need for a unified and coordinated approach towards global challenges".

According to him, clear recognition of scientific facts and immediate action are needed regarding climate change, water supplies and food security.

Šarec stressed that Slovenia was committed to a strong, cohesive and united EU, while ensuring solidarity and the highest standards of human rights and dignity.

Sustainable development was also in focus of Slovenian Foreign Minister Miro Cerar's address, who labelled sustainable development "our key priority".

Putting words into practice is the main responsibility, according to Cerar, who said that the burden of going sustainable and green should not fall on the shoulders of those who are already struggling now to cope with the changes in the globalised world.

The opening was also addressed by María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, the president of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, who said that climate change was the "greatest challenge we must address".

She said that the planet had to increase the ambition towards green economy, taking immediate steps, such as public and private investments in low carbon, green jobs, otherwise the world would face instability.

Espinosa Garcés also pointed to the need to rework social contracts as there was an increasing inability of governments to protect their citizens, and to improve the health of the international system to counter the rise in nationalist sentiment.

The main panels of the first day of proceedings respectively tackled the challenges facing the EU and the current state of multilateralism.

The presidents of Slovenia and Estonia, Borut Pahor and Kersti Kaljulaid, spoke in favour of a strong EU as they discussed the future of the bloc.

Arguing that the EU was at a standstill that was unsustainable, Pahor proposed that the new European Commission and Parliament should consider initiating a constitutional process, something like the Convention on the Future of Europe in 2002 and 2003.

Kaljulaid agreed in principle but also suggested that the underlying question of whether the EU was useful or efficient might be misguided, especially if one tried to imagine what it would be like without the EU.

Two main immediate challenges for the EU were singled out: Brexit and migrations, issues that the Slovenian president said needed to be addressed if the EU was to be capable of dealing with more strategic questions.

A ministerial panel on multilateralism showed that multilateralism is under attack and that it can survive only if a concerted action is taken and global cooperation is maintained in order to tackle relevant challenges, including nationalism and narrow interests.

The notion that multilateralism is "under severe attack" was presented by Slovenian Foreign Minister Cerar, who said that some leaders were making mistakes by thinking that complex issues could be resolved by simple means.

"There are so many knots around the world that should be untied by diplomatic means, and they should not be simply cut," added Cerar.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu presented a nuanced picture of multilateralism, saying that his country was not moving away from European alliances.

"Doing business with one country does not mean that you are moving away from other parts of the world," he said, while criticising western allies for sometimes not providing assistance when needed.

His Spanish counterpart Josep Borrell Fontelles wondered how Europe would survive in the global world as its population is decreasing. In today's world, which he called "a world of G2 - China and the US", more stability would be provided by another superpower, with Europe having the capacity and economy for that, but only if it was united.

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