From a Star Pupil to a Troubling Role Model for the Western Balkans: The Influence of Domestic Factors on the De-Europeanization of Slovenia During EU Crises

From a Star Pupil to a Troubling Role Model for the Western Balkans: The Influence of Domestic Factors on the De-Europeanization of Slovenia During EU Crises

Jure Pozgan, Ana Bojinović Fenko
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-9055-3.ch009
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This chapter examines the phenomenon of backsliding in the post-accession process of Europeanisation in Slovenia as one of the Central and Eastern European member states of the EU. It seeks to explain the rise of compliance problems with the EU's values (i.e., de-Europeanisation) in Slovenia, which turned a former EU star pupil into a troublesome member state. The chapter analyses sources of economic and democratic backsliding in times of polycrises in the EU that stem from the state's domestic environment and confirms the determining role of decision-makers over the political system. Given the importance and widely shared image of Slovenia as a role model for the candidate states in the Western Balkans, the chapter also addresses the potential impact of Slovenia's de-Europeanisation turn for its role as a bridge between the EU and the Western Balkans region.
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Slovenia acquired full European Union (EU) membership in 2004, along with other Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. It was the first EU member among the newly independent states of the post-Yugoslav area in the Balkan region that since 1998 have been known as the Western Balkans (WB).1 Moreover, given its swift and relatively successful process of integration and accommodation to the EU’s norms, rules and policies, Slovenia was soon recognised as a »star pupil« and became the first new member state to be entrusted with the Presidency of the Council of the EU. This reinforced Slovenia’s image as a role model of successful Europeanisation not just for other CEE countries, but also for countries in the WB (Bojinović Fenko & Urlić, 2015).

The latter was a consequence of both external pressures and an internal strategic choice for how Slovenia should proceed in developing its relationships with the WB countries. First, despite its ambiguous »away from the Balkans« policy of the early post-independence years, since 1999 Slovenia has sought to return to the WB.2 This has been due to the accession processes’ structural and institutional power whereby the EU has expressed its high expectations of Slovenia’s role in the region (Bojinović Fenko & Požgan, 2014). Second, during and after its accession process Slovenia identified itself as a strategic »connoisseur« willing and able to offer mediation and good offices in solving complex issues in the WB (Državni zbor, 1999). This focus on the WB as Slovenia’s comparative advantage and a source of its specialisation in the EU (Bojinović Fenko & Požgan, 2014; Bojinović Fenko & Šabič, 2017) remains high on the agenda, with the region having been regarded as a top priority of both its 2008 and 2021 Council presidencies. Decision-makers understood that if it is to serve as a partner and consultant in the transition and integration of the WB into the EU, Slovenia must be (and remain) a credible and successful EU member state, i.e. lead by example.

Accordingly, the most important Slovenian asset for being a legitimate role model for the WB states has been the quality of its domestic transformation with regard to political pluralism, a stable democracy, and economic development performance. Two aspects are relevant here. First, the relatively independent expert role of national civil servants relative to politicians in EU policymaking issues (Fink-Hafner and Lajh, 2018) and, second, Slovenian civil society organisations’ inclusion in EU policymaking (Novak and Lajh, 2018). In comparison to the WB states, Slovenian society was perceived to be the most economically efficient, the least nationalist, and most generally positively stereotyped among all post-Yugoslav peoples (Rašković and Vuchkovski, 2016). Still, the outbreak of the global financial and economic crisis in 2008 altered the image of Slovenia as an EU success story and challenged the assumptions of Europeanisation. The occurrence of “polycrises” (Zeitliin, Nicoli & Laffan, 2019) in the EU (e.g. migration crisis, enlargement fatigue, Brexit, COVID-19 crisis) have all profoundly impacted the functioning of the domestic political system, where Slovenia has depended heavily on the EU’s policymaking and policies. In the years that followed, Slovenia not only experienced backsliding in economic terms and compliance with the EU rules but also as concerns the quality of its domestic institutions and governance efficiency (Lovec & Crnčec, 2014). The quite inefficient and at times ambiguous handling of these crises, both at home and on the EU level, have challenged the dominance of the seemingly internalised Western-type liberal democratic identity of Slovenia as an EU member state. Some of the most recent developments with respect to the curtailing of media freedom, challenges to the rule of law, and imposition of unconstitutional government measures in Slovenia only confirm the country’s backsliding in democratic and pluralist standards. Thus, instead of capitalising on its second Council presidency to “save face”, Slovenia has moved even more towards the EU periphery and joined the group of “Europeanisation spoilers” from CEE, most notably Hungary and Poland.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Democratic Backsliding: The deterioration of democracy.

Conditionality: A strategy of the EU’s engagement with candidate countries for EU membership based on a set of conditions.

Enlargement: Widening of the EU, also the EU’s policy to achieve this foreign policy goal.

Europeanisation: A process in which states adopt the EU’s rules (top-down Europeanisation) or try to influence EU policies according to their national interest (bottom-up Europeanisation).

De-Europeanisation: A process in which the EU’s normative, legal or political influence/relevance on a (member) state weakens.

Domestic Factors: Factors influencing a state’s foreign policy decision-making that originate from within the country (political system, natural resources, economic development, decision-makers, civil society, media, market actors, bureaucracy, political culture, history, culture, societal values etc.).

Central and Eastern Europe: Post-communist states from this geographical area that joined the EU in 2004 and in 2007.

Foreign Policy Environment: Conditions in which a state operates in a foreign policy situation. They originate either from the international community (beyond state borders – foreign environment) or from within the state (domestic environment) and offer opportunities or constraints for state’s desired foreign policy action.

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