Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on Slovenia.
Slovenia lacks a foreign policy narrative.
For far too long, joining the European Union and NATO was the country’s only goal. After that objective was achieved in 2004, membership in both organizationsbecame a kind of substitute for an international agenda. Occasionally, there is some noise from Ljubljana, but no policy. The euro crisis has pushed the country even farther toward the European periphery.
In short, Slovenia’s foreign policy ambitions are almost nonexistent, scoring 1 out of 5. The country’s contribution to EU foreign and security policy is negligible.
On the foreign policy agenda, there is no important emotional issue, as the border dispute with Croatia in the Gulf of Piran used to be. For almost two decades, Slovenia’s problems with its southern neighbor absorbed much of the time and energy of this small country. Croatia was known as the enemy that all Slovenes loved. Fortunately, in 2009 the bilateral issue was transferred to an international arbitration tribunal. The hysteria was gone.
Foreign policy is not the priority of Slovenia’s current government, nor was it for any recent government coalition. The country’s economic crisis and domestic political turmoil (the current government is the third since 2012) have not been conducive to foreign policy either. Ljubljana has downscaled its ambitions even further.
To compound the issue, Slovenia’s economic ranking has been slipping. In 2014, Ljubljana tried desperately not to become a part of the group of indebted eurozone countries that needed an EU bailout program. What a contrast from a decade earlier, when Slovenia joined the EU as the union’s most successful new member and later became the first former Communist country to adopt the single currency.
Now, Slovenia is economically and politically a part of the EU’s beleaguered Southern periphery. Indeed, in 2014, diplomacy was mostly preoccupied with reestablishing confidence. The economic crisis certainly set new priorities. Yet this peripheral status is the result of several factors: poor economic performance, bad policymaking, corruption, and a nonfunctioning democracy.
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In the EU itself, Slovenia rarely takes on its own foreign policy position. It prefers to stay silent, waiting for a consensus to be formed. One of Slovenia’s leading EU experts observed that the country is not capable of formulating or asserting its interests. Usually it adopts the position of Germany. As Slovenia perceives itself as culturally close to Germany, this may seem natural. Yet given the two countries’ widely different sizes and economies, the interests of Slovenia and Germany are in fact very apart.
Furthermore, an illusion developed that the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy would solve all of Ljubljana’sexternal policy dilemmas. Since Slovenia’s foreign policy is usually on the defensive, the idea was that the country could simply rely on EU policies. But the Common Foreign and Security Policy is still a project in the making. And more and more, member states have to take sides and articulate their positions.
As regards joint EU policymaking, Slovenia is not a very active participant—the rare exception being relations with Russia. Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in late 2013, Slovenia has taken a less hawkish position vis-à-vis Russia than other Eastern European countries have. As the only Slavic country with an unproblematic relationship with the Russian Federation, Slovenia has an important asset.
However, relations with Russia are a matter more of economic interest than of foreign policy strategy. The foreign ministry in Ljubljana perceives foreign policy as a mere trade tool. That perception is what lies behind Slovenia’s opposition to the EU’s decision in 2012 to extend sanctions against Belarus. The government wanted to protect a business deal for a Slovene company in Minsk.
The same view also explains Slovenia’s ambivalence with regard to the EU’s current economic sanctions against Russia. In February 2014, Slovenia’s Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec made a bizarre diplomatic intervention: he offered Slovenia for so-called mediation services in the Ukraine crisis.
Other EU leaders pretended not to hear Ljubljana’s proposal. The crisis was much too big for Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and for Europe as a whole to let a small member state take such a leading role. Slovenia’s foreign policy is often prone to improvisation rather than strategy.
Foreign affairs have rarely had first-rank status in Slovenia. That is the product of the country’s history, its newly achieved statehood, and its limited foreign policy horizons. Most of the time, Slovenia was absorbed in bilateral issues with neighboring Croatia, Italy, and Austria and occupied with fulfilling the EU’s acquis communautaire, the body of law that candidate countries must implement.
In many ways, Slovenia’s story is not very different from those of other Eastern European countries that had longed to join the Euro-Atlantic institutions. Yet Slovenia’s GDP per capita in the 1990s was higher than that of many of its Eastern neighbors, closer to the level of Portugal or Greece than of Poland or Slovakia. And Slovenia’s transition to democracy was smoother and its starting point better than for most other ex-Communist countries. Slovenia was not a part of the coalition of the poor.
Nevertheless, today Slovenia is lagging behind. The country was too arrogant to join the Visegrád Group of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, set up in 1991. In the meantime, their regional cooperation has generated certain elements of soft power.
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Similarly, Slovenia distanced itself from the Western Balkans for too long. Later, when Ljubljana decided to shift its focus to the region and claimed to have specific expertise there, it was too late. Other countries, like Austria, exert more influence in the Balkans than Slovenia, and others do more to remind the EU that the region must not remain a black hole in European integration.
In foreign policy, it is quality that matters. Small countries can exert a certain influence. The debate on the power of small countries is no longer dismissed as ridiculous, and a country’s diplomatic profile is no longer just the equivalent of its size.
After all, Slovenia has on occasions pursued a more ambitious agenda, for example as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council in 1998–1999 or when it occupied the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2005.
The country has also been committed to human rights and humanitarian projects: Slovenia led a project to rehabilitate children and young adults in Gaza and set up a nonprofit organization devoted to assisting the victims of landmines.
In recent years, however, the scope of Slovenia’s foreign policy has narrowed. The fact that the country remains a player of negligible importance has to do with its own foreign policy choices, which are often the result of public pressures, political and economic lobbies, or even personal ambition. Pity.
Saša Vidmajer is the editorial page writer for Europe at the Slovenian daily Delo.