Following a political crisis in Slovenia, at the session of the National Assembly on 3 March 2020, Janez Janša was elected as the 14th President of the Government of the Republic of Slovenia. We interviewed him on the health emergency in Europe, the respnses of the European Union and the migrant crisis.
- What measures did you take in the fight against Covid-19 as soon as you became Prime Minister?
We took over the Government at a time when no serious measures had been put in place to tackle the epidemic. Stocks with necessary personal protective equipment were empty. We wrote every single order, ordinance and decision from scratch, which required devoting additional efforts to dealing with this insidious virus. In adopting the measures, we followed the instructions of medical experts, while following the situation not only in our neighbouring countries but also in other countries that faced the epidemic before us. We immediately adopted an ordinance on the temporary prohibition of offering and selling goods and services to consumers, allowing only the operation of business providing food and other essential services (post offices, pharmacies, petrol stations, banks, agricultural stores), whereas all other accommodation, hospitality, wellness, sports and recreational, cinematographic, cultural, hairdressing, cosmetics and pedicure services, including gaming and other similar activities, have been suspended.
We allocated doctors without licences, adopted an act on temporary measures regarding judicial, administrative and other public law-related matters, and banned the operation of air services in the Republic of Slovenia, with some exceptions. Educational institutions have been closed meaning that the study process is being carried out remotely, and will continue to be performed this way as long as the risk of the virus being spread persists. Furthermore, we adopted the act proposal for the intervention measure of deferred payment of borrowers’ liabilities, restricted entry into the Republic of Slovenia from Italy, and established checkpoints on the Austrian border. We prohibited movement outside the municipality of residence as well as gatherings of people at public meetings, public events and other events in public places in the Republic of Slovenia.
Being aware of the social and economic impact of measures on peoples’ lives – as we face the overall shutdown of public work and life – we adopted an anti-corona legislative package containing measures to preserve jobs, improve people’s social situation, help the self-employed, keep businesses in operation, improve the liquidity of businesses, and provide support to scientific research projects in the fight against the epidemic and guidelines for measures designed to aid agriculture. This package will be followed by others, all with the aim of getting back to the life we once had as soon as possible after this battle with the coronavirus. As the magnitude of the crisis is truly large and could have major and fatal effects on the coherence of the EU and the economic and monetary union, Slovenia supported the initiative for a common debt instrument.
- How is Slovenia handling protective and medical equipment shortages, if any?
Just like other countries that are now making every effort worldwide to find medical equipment, the production of which is concentrated in China, this Government immediately upon its appointment launched activities to supply such equipment and we are doing everything humanly possible to ensure the delivery of the equipment. Not a day goes by without at least one large shipment being delivered to Slovenia. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Czech Republic for their help not only in connection with the protective equipment but also the repatriation of Slovenian citizens. Solidarity between human beings and states is being put to the test in this crisis and I am pleased to note that, in general, humanity is prevailing.
Unfortunately, certain products offering the highest degree of protection are simply not available anywhere at this moment. In February, when these products were still available on the market in sufficient quantities, nobody in Slovenia wanted to purchase them. Furthermore, my predecessor publicly stated that we are spreading panic, manifestly opposing the advice of medical experts.
Let me illustrate how dire the situation with protective equipment is around the world by mentioning the U.S. Vice President who, on Twitter, expressed his personal gratitude for the donation of 5,000 protective masks. Just think, for 5,000 masks in a country with a population of 327 million.
At the level of the EU, I urged to speed up procedures and deliveries as part of the joint procurement for the necessary medical and protective equipment. I am convinced that coordination to this end has already started and that all the Member States will thus obtain additional equipment that is so urgently needed.
- There have been cases of face marks destined to Italy blocked in some EU Member states (e.g. Germany). Ms. Lagarde acted very late in the support of the crisis. And now the Eurogroup yesterday seems to have back tracked on the idea of fiscal flexibility particularly for Italy. What do you think about the lack of European solidarity towards Italy?
Decisive, coordinated and concerted action is needed not only at the national level, but also at the European level. In the institutional sense, there are obvious weaknesses at both the national and supranational levels, something that I drew attention to at the last European Council meeting. Firstly, there has been the poor ability of institutions equipped with information and knowledge to predict developments – questions that arise here are why it took the World Health Organization so long to declare a pandemic, how it is possible that the UN did not say much in January and February and why there was not, at least not strong enough early warning from our experts, institutes and academics. There has been a problem of a slow response time, then the poor exchange of information between countries, poor coordination, and the particularly obvious serious lack of supplies of essential protective and medical equipment. In these circumstances the strategic aspect of the personal protective gear is the same as is the status of the ammunition at the battlefield.
We all can learn something from the current lack of protective equipment – we must ensure that this situation, namely a situation where production capacities are concentrated only in one part of the world, does not repeat itself.
Other shortcomings are also being revealed at the level of the EU as a whole, and we must acknowledge them and do everything in our power to eliminate them as soon as possible. Please do not get me wrong: we do not need new institutions, but rather their more flexible functioning and better coordination.
On the one hand, we can see noble actions by some countries – in this regard, I have already mentioned our experience with Czech Republic, while on the other we are faced with examples of egoism within the family of European nations and countries. We must show solidarity with countries, particularly with those that are under great pressure due to the crisis. I hope that, in the future, when we look back at and analyse our tackling of the coronavirus crisis, there will be more positive than negative actions.
The role of European institutions is also extremely important. In my assessment, the European Central Bank has rapidly stepped up its measures, which now seem appropriate considering the size of the challenge and so we welcome its Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program. However, actions by the monetary authority alone will not be enough. We need to take a radical step forward in terms of taking concerted and decisive action tailored to the size and specific characteristics of the challenge, such as creating a common debt instrument. In normal circumstances, and in principle, I am strongly against that those who perform better automatically support all others. But for this pandemic circumstances, issuing a common debt instrument would send out a strong signal of unity and solidarity.
- Migrants still going through the Balkan Route can be a serious issue, not only for security reasons but now also for health reasons, since no one is checking their health conditions in relation to Covid19. What measures do you intend to take to block or control more the route? Do you think the European Union is doing enough to control the migrant flows?
It is true that the Balkan Migrant Route is active again – in fact, it never completely shut down – and in recent months the number of illegal crossings of our southern border has been increasing. There have been reports in the past of illegal migrants who came to Europe along the Balkan Route, in addition to several individuals who then performed terrorist acts, bringing with them diseases that had been eradicated in Europe for years. For example, Slovenian police officers who protect the border have also caught scabies and other diseases in recent years. Another problem is that illegal migrants who request asylum in our country leave asylum centres and travel to other European countries, and if they have a contagious disease, they can infect any person with whom they come into contact.
We are aware that our southern border is not only a border between two countries, it is also the external border of the EU, i.e. the Schengen border. This means that our responsibility to protect it adequately is so much greater. This is why a broad discussion is currently underway about the activation of the relevant statutory article to grant additional powers to the armed forces for the protection of our southern border, which requires the support of two-thirds of votes in parliament. We also plan to amend the asylum legislation in order to prevent the abuse of asylum procedures. The Government I lead will do everything necessary to prevent illegal migrations and illegal border crossings.
- To fight the corona virus crisis, Member States are activating without any EU coordination. Do you think the EU will become stronger and more united or is this the end of the EU as we know it after the health emergency?
I think that, following the initial underestimation, slow reaction and admittedly poor coordination by EU institutions, coordination has improved in the past few days and there is a common effort for more coordinated action. The crisis that struck us is a very serious test of our ability to take common and coordinated action and to collaborate. It is a challenge and opportunity to exit the crisis more connected, with a greater sense of responsibility towards one another, with a deeper sense of empathy, a clearer awareness of being connected in our common fate and the need for cooperation for the well-being of us all, all the countries and nations in Europe, where the relations between the countries are guided by an awareness of the shared tasks to benefit us all and not by a focus on the merely transactional aspect of relations. If we are not able to respond to his challenge in this way, this can have a severe impact on the future coherence of the EU and thus on its unity and power. However, in this crisis, every country facing the issue of the capability of its healthcare system depends on its own measures and cannot merely wait for a joint EU response.