The opening of Slovenia’s presidency of the EU has descended into farce as the European Commission’s vice-president refused to be photographed with the country’s rightwing prime minister, Janez Janša, after a bitter behind-the-scenes row at a launch event.
During an opening meeting in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, with the 27 members of the commission, Janša had shown them a group photograph of a Slovenian judge with a Socialist and Democrat MEP and other members of the country’s Social Democrats party.
Janša, who has been criticised for his attacks on the independence of Slovenia’s judiciary, claimed the photo as proof of the political bias of the country’s judges. The suggestion was rejected forcibly by Frans Timmermans, the commission’s vice-president and a member of the Socialists and Democrats group, who subsequently refused to take part in the traditional group photo.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, later pointedly told reporters that judges had a right to a private life and that it should not be used to suggest bias. She made her comments as she stood next to Janša, a controversial figure who was unique among EU leaders in backing Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the US election result.
In a statement following his walkout, Timmermans, a former foreign minister from the Dutch Labour party, said: “I simply could not be on the same podium with prime minister Janša after his unacceptable attack on and defamation of two judges and two S&D MEPs.
“He challenged their integrity because they were in the same picture. Judicial independence and respect for the role of elected MEP’s are cornerstones of the rule of law, without which the EU cannot function. We can never stop calling out those who attack it.”
The row left a sour atmosphere at an opening press conference for Slovenia’s presidency of the EU, a position that gives the government a steering role in the bloc’s agenda for the next six months
Von der Leyen took Janša to task over a stream of issues, specifically inviting him to tell reporters when an official would be appointed to scrutinise the spending of billions of EU recovery funds.
Slovenia has failed to appoint prosecutors to the European public prosecutor’s office, which is tasked with challenging abuse of EU cash, despite having confirmation on Thursday that it would receive €2.5bn (£2.15bn) in EU recovery funds.
Slovenia’s management of the recovery cash, part of an €800bn EU fund, has as a result been described by the European chief prosecutor, Laura Codruța Kövesi, as a “huge risk” after it missed a 1 June deadline to appoint two prosecutors.
Janša, who had a 2013 conviction and two-year prison sentence for corruption overturned in 2015, blocked their appointment on the grounds that there had been an insufficient number of qualified candidates.
Von der Leyen said: “It is a crucial component to protect taxpayers money. It is an important institution. It is very good that Slovenia has signed up to it and now Slovenia must deliver and operate because I think it is now time and right that they appoint a delegated prosecutor.”
She added: “We have not talked about specific dates. Perhaps the prime minister will answer to that?”
In response, Janša described Kövesi’s comments as “too political”, adding that they “do not help solve the situation”. He said he expected the selection process for the prosecutors to be concluded in autumn but expressed his frustration that Slovenia was being criticised despite voluntarily accepting the remit of the European public prosecutor’s office unlike Sweden, Poland, Denmark and Ireland. He added cryptically: “Slovenia is a member of the European Union and you should get used to that.”
Janša has regularly taken to Twitter to attack his critics, including journalists. Von der Leyen said she had raised concerns about the withholding of state funds from the Slovenian Press Agency, criticised for “spreading lies” by Janša, and the government’s attitude towards the country’s judiciary.
On the former issue, Von der Leyen said there had been progress and Janša suggested paperwork was the only obstacle. On the judiciary, he said: “We have some problem with the independence of courts in Slovenia as well and we have never hidden this fact.”
The scenes in Ljubljana unfolded as the European Commission was also urged to reject Hungary’s coronavirus recovery plan over concerns about fraud, corruption and the country’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights.
A cross-party group of left and liberal MEPs have written to Von der Leyen demanding she send the Hungarian government back to the drawing board over its spending plans for a €7.2bn coronavirus recovery grant.
The commission last month began to sign off national plans from EU member states to spend their shares of the Covid recovery fund as it embarks on an exercise in joint borrowing seen as a historic step for EU integration.
Hungary has requested €7.2bn in grants under the scheme, which it is thought would be the largest single transfer of EU funds since it joined the union in 2004.
Longstanding allegations about fraud and nepotism linked to the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, have alarmed MEPs, especially as his government has not acted on previous recommendations from Brussels on securing the independence of judges, improving transparency and anti-corruption.
“Respect for the rule of law and sound financial management are key components of successful recovery in Europe,” states the letter signed by seven MEPs from Green, Liberal, Social Democrat and radical left parties. “Citizens must be fully assured that the money of taxpayers is invested properly and not used to undermine the foundations of the EU.”
As well as concerns about corruption, the MEPs highlighted a recently adopted Hungarian law that bans the depiction of gay people in educational materials and entertainment content for minors, a law condemned by Von der Leyen as “a shame … [that] clearly discriminates against people on the basis of their sexual orientation”.