Comprising 27 nations, the European Union is the biggest trading bloc on earth. Yet there is widespread agreement that it is punching well below its weight on the global stage. Slovenia’s President, Danilo Türk, shared his views on the EU’s best way forward when he visited London recently, as Jonathan Fryer reports.
Like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the European Union seems to have ‘just growed’, from six to nine to 10 to 12 to 15 to 25 and now 27 member states. Indeed, its expansion probably hasn’t finished yet, given the queue of countries, stretching from Iceland to Turkey and even further east, currently harbouring an aspiration to join, however remote their prospects of accession may look at the moment. Yet the great irony is that while the EU may be high in the popularity stakes among many of its immediate neighbours, internally it is in disarray over how best to respond to the ongoing financial crisis. Some pessimists even talk of some eurozone countries abandoning the euro or even leaving the EU altogether.
‘The vulnerabilities of the EU are clearer than they were before, and therefore there is some pessimism,’ Slovenia’s President, Danilo Türk, admitted when he addressed a sell-out audience at the London School of Economics (LSE) recently on the subject of ‘The EU as a Global Player’. ‘The European Union,’ he declared, ‘has to put its own house in order if it is to play a coherent and meaningful role in the world. But [it] is based on a very sound system of shared values, which remain a source of hope for the future.’
Dr Türk has a professorial air and style of delivery, which is not surprising given that he was a Professor of International Law – and for a while, head of Ljubljana University’s Institute of International Law and International Relations – before going off to work at the United Nations. There, the then Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, appointed him Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs. He was subsequently elected President of Slovenia in November 2007, garnering over two-thirds of the vote.
‘There are,’ he believes, ‘three requirements for the EU to become a global player: first, the successful handling of the euro-crisis; second, to develop a clearer sense of hierarchy amongst [the EU’s] geopolitical priorities while it develops its Common Foreign and Security Policy [CFSP]; and third, to strengthen a realistic policy on human rights.’
Human Rights have always figured highly among Dr Türk’s own priorities. He has been actively involved with the London-based NGO Amnesty International since 1975, and has acted as an advisor on many cases concerning human rights violations in the former Yugoslavia. From 1984-92 he served in a personal capacity, as an independent expert, to the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities.
‘The EU is based on a system of human rights,’ he says. ‘But internally, the agenda of human rights has to be handled as a matter of great sensitivity – [take] for example the issue of immigration and our treatment of migrant communities. The respect for cultural diversity has its limits; the basis of policy in this field should be the linguistic integration of migrants into the host society while giving them full access to care and quality education – then, the ingredients for improved social mobility will be real.’
From an international perspective, Dr Türk believes that the world has improved a lot since the 1970s. ‘We have to build on those successes; however, there is a problem that within the UN so many member states vote against the European Union on the issue of human rights. The EU has to stick to its principles, but it must avoid being seen as moralising or lecturing. With regard to China, for instance, the EU should in no way exercise ideological simplification when dealing with human rights. We have to acknowledge that the People’s Republic of China has helped hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the past couple of decades. However, the EU can lead by example and through positive responses to the challenges of international development.’
While that view is no doubt widely shared among other EU heads of state, some of Dr Türk’s other political positions are not so widely endorsed. This does not particularly bother him – he is proud, for example, that Slovenia has been more forthright in its support of the Palestinian people and their aspirations than the EU consensus, and even undertook a state visit to the Palestinian Authority early in 2009. But for many commentators on EU affairs, Dr Türk’s most interesting divergence from received ideas relates to where he thinks the focus of EU external policy ought to be. Largely under the influence of France and Spain, the EU has recently been encouraged to look south, across the Mediterranean – indeed, President Nicolas Sarkozy has been promoting the concept of a Mediterranean Union since the summer of 2008. Dr Türk, by contrast, would rather the EU-27 look east, toward the Western Balkans, Turkey, Ukraine and beyond.
Given Slovenia’s geographical position and recent history, such bias is perhaps not surprising. Slovenians are always at pains to point out that unlike the other constituent republics of former Yugoslavia their country is part of Central Europe, not the Balkans; nonetheless, Slovenia has a particular interest in ensuring the smooth passage into the EU of its next door neighbour, Croatia, with which relations have sometimes been difficult, mainly as result of border disputes. ‘Croatia,’ Dr Türk observes, ‘now has to handle some big issues which have not yet been settled, including law and order and shipyards. And Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to make improvements to its political system before it [can] join the EU.’
EU visa restrictions for Bosnians and Albanians were scrapped in December. This follows a similar liberalisation extended to Serbians, Montenegrins and Macedonians in 2009, though not without howls of protest from some EU citizens concerned about a sudden influx of migrant workers and refugees. ‘Freedom of movement is a human right,’ President Türk comments. ‘The liberalisation of human movement is in the interest of human rights. But we need a broader co-operation with the “human base” in the East.’
In the meantime, the EU has to sort out its own internal problems, amid an economic and financial climate in which some – notably Germany – are performing rather well and others – notably Greece and Ireland – are floundering. Though part of the large new intake of member states in 2004, Slovenia is nowadays well established at the EU’s core, being both a party to the Schengen area of ‘borderless Europe’ and a eurozone country, and having already taken a turn, during the first half of 2008, as President of the European Council.
But despite being what one might call a ‘gold star’ new member of the EU, Slovenia is not without its own problems. ‘We need to undertake certain reforms, including pensions,’ Dr Türk concurs. ‘But there is reason to be optimistic about the EU itself, providing the necessary measures are taken. The Single European Act of 1985 brought an end to a period of Euro-sclerosis. The question is: can a similar change happen now