The presidency of the Council of the European Union

Slovenia takes over from Portugal at a vital moment for the bloc.

After what has been a gruelling first half of 2021 for almost everyone involved, schools are closing for summer and holidays are being planned by would-be-tourists across Europe. With temperatures rising and the vaccine rollout picking up pace, citizens will feel like the time is right to enjoy a well-earned period of rest and relaxation. 

For some, however, the hard work is just beginning. At what will no doubt prove to be a pivotal moment in the European Union’s recent history, the Presidency of the Council of the European Union yesterday passed to Slovenia, who will oversee the body for the next 6 months.

With an ever-growing East-West divide in Europe, one that is often encouraged, if not propagated by major world powers, Slovenia taking the reigns at this moment will, no doubt, cause a stir. Add to this the ongoing recovery from the pandemic, as well as Europe’s continuously fiery debate about the rule of law, and the importance of this presidential term becomes clear.

What is the Council of the European Union?

Let’s start with the basics. Established in 1958 and located in Brussels, the Council of the European Union (‘the Council’) is one of the EU’s three legislative bodies, along with the European Parliament (‘the Parliament’) and the European Commission (the Commission). 

Together with the Parliament, the Council amends and approves proposed legislation that comes from the Commission. The Council is composed of government ministers from each EU Member State (MS). These ministers have the power to take actions for their government and each national government sends the relevant minister, depending on the topic being discussed. For example, if the Economic and Financial Affairs Council is meeting, each MS will send their finance minister. 

The council may only vote if a majority of its members are present and a simple qualified majority is needed to pass legislation. This means the Council needs 55% of countries (15 or more out of 27 MS) representing at least 65 % of the total EU population to vote in favour of a motion for it to be passed. A minimum of 4 countries representing 35% or more of the EU population is needed to block a decision.

The President of the Council of the European Union

The Presidency of the Council rotates every 6 months amongst all EU members, with nations being grouped into sets of three, with an 18-month plan laid out at the start of each cycle. Slovenia is the third nation in the 10th Presidential Trio, taking over from Portugal and, previously, Germany. These countries work in close trilateral co-operation when compiling their collective 18-month agenda, with each individual nation compiling their own more detailed 6-month agenda for when they are at the helm.

The role is of great importance within the EU’s legislative bodies. Since the President of the Council is responsible for presenting the joint position of the Council when working with the Parliament, one of the main responsibilities of the president is to ensure harmonisation among all EU countries. The president must aim for common agreements and must not under any circumstances prioritise its own national interests.

While this responsibility may seem obvious, as the head of a pancontinental, co-operative body, many have called into question the actions and ambitions of the man who leads Slovenia, Janez Janša. In many ways, the debate perfectly represents what has become the major hurdle that the EU must overcome in the coming months and years: the East-West divide.

Janez Janša

With his nation taking over the presidency this week, all eyes naturally turned to Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Janša. As allied with Victor Orban as he is a fan of Donald Trump, Janša has led the right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS)  unchallenged since 1993. Loyalty from the SDS – a member of the European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament – is seemingly unwavering, with some claiming he leads the party with an iron fist, intolerant of any dissent.

Janša has come in for criticism recently for a host of incidents, including his declaration that Donald Trump won the 2020 Presidential Election in the US, and the subsequent tweets he sent out, seemingly promoting several conspiracy theories surrounding that election. Along with allies Victor Orban of Hungary and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Janša was recently denounced for limiting media freedoms in his country. 

Such claims have helped the idea of an East-West divide in Europe flourish, but Janša himself has said he wants nothing to do with such notions, stating that "Slovenia and many other countries do not want to be part of any new divisions in Europe. There were enough of those. We have joined the EU to become united, not divided".

On the other hand, the most recent statistics from FreedomHouse rank Slovenia above many EU nations in terms of civil liberties. European powerhouses France and Germany are among the Member States that fall short in this category. 

What to expect from the Slovenian Presidency

As mentioned, Slovenia has taken over from Portugal as the new leader of the council. All things considered, the Portuguese stint could be considered a success. Ambitious climate goals have been set and the Common Agricultural Policy was finally agreed upon – though not as many would have hoped. On many other issues, however, Portugal did not maximise the potential to do good. 

It is time to see what Slovenia has in store and, if you like catchy slogans, Slovenia is the President for you! "Together. Resilient. Europe" is the moniker that’s been chosen and it accurately represents the areas of focus that have been identified as crucial. The Programme of the Slovenian Presidency has been released and, when you boil it down, they have targeted four main areas:

  • The resilience, recovery and strategic autonomy of the European Union,

  • Conference on the Future of Europe 

  • A union of the European way of life, the rule of law and equal criteria for all

  • A credible and secure European Union, capable of ensuring security and stability in its neighbourhood

Inspiring slogan? Check.
Appropriate goals? Check.
A guaranteed success? Let’s slow down, for a minute.

Europe, on the brink

The fact of the matter is that Slovenia takes over this role at a time when Europe is as fractured as it has ever been in the last twenty years. While the vaccine rollout is finally progressing well, the delta variant is wreaking serious havoc across the continent. Vaccine ‘passports’ are causing just as much controversy as they are resolving and, according to the WHO, we are on the verge of another wave of infections. 

Even putting the pandemic aside, there are some very real issues within the EU at the moment. The debate on the rule of law rages on, with Hungary’s latest set of abhorrent laws taking centre stage. Whether Janša will admit it or not, he is part of this discussion. The rotating presidency method is, perhaps, the fairest way of governing the Council fairly amongst all Member States. However, a right-wing nationalist who has led his party unchallenged for almost 30 years does not scream co-operation.

If Slovenia’s Presidency of the Council is going to be a success, Janša and his colleagues will have to sacrifice their national interests for the good of the entire EU. Recovering from the pandemic is priority no.1 in the short term, but if the rule of law issue is not prioritised, the cracks in an already divided community of nations will grow.

The East-West divide in Europe is becoming more pronounced and if we are not careful, we could see some sort of split in the coming years. For now, we turn to Slovenia and hope that it takes the opportunity to champion core EU values, such as equality, democracy and the rule of law. 

Hopefully, in six months time, those involved will have earned themselves a holiday.