Slovenia has taken over the rotating presidency of the European Union amid tensions over fundamental EU values, with a heavy agenda that will include the rollout of the EU's €750 billion Covid recovery fund, a swathe of new binding legislation on Europe’s climate goals, and how to manage relations with Russia.
The launch of the six-month presidency was overshadowed by a tense news conference involving European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Slovenia Prime Minister Janez Janša.
Mr Janša has been accused of launching personalised attacks on journalists and withdrawing funding from independent media.
He also supported Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during last week’s EU summit, which saw sharp exchanges over Hungary’s new law targeting the LGBTI community.
The European Commission has taken legal action against Hungary and Poland over alleged breaches of fundamental EU values, such as respect for minorities and judicial independence.
During the launch of the presidency in Brdo, outside the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, Ms von der Leyen reminded her host that Slovenia would be steering a report into the state of the rule of law in EU member states.
In a tense exchange, Ms von der Leyen said: "Trust in solid institutions, trust in independent and efficient judicial systems, trust in free and independent and properly funded media, trust that freedom of expression, diversity and equality are always respected and that the rule of law and European values are always upheld.
"This is the very essence of the European Union. This is how we earn the respect of the global community and this is the key to recovering and living together as a union."
In response Mr Janša defended his support of Mr Orban and denied there had been deep divisions at EU leader level on the Hungarian law.
He said: "We had a sincere discussion on what human rights are, which rights have priority and where within the spectre of European values do we find the right of parents to educate their children. I would say there were no major differences in terms of values and how we feel about them. The discussion was indeed heated."
The European Commission held a bilateral meeting with the Slovenian government yesterday in Brdo to map out the legislative agenda for the next six months.
During the meeting, the Slovenian Prime Minister reportedly showed Commissioners a photograph of a number of Slovenian judges alongside MEPs from the opposition Social Democrats, in order to demonstrate the alleged politicisation of the judiciary.
Later, Frans Timmermans, the Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, said: "I simply could not be on the same podium with PM 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 MEPs are cornerstones of the Rule of Law, without which the EU cannot function. We can never stop calling out those who attack it."
Despite the tensions, Slovenian ministers have been determined to focus on their priorities during the next six months.
This will be the second time the small alpine country has hosted the EU presidency, and it coincides with the 30th anniversary of the country's independence from Yugoslavia.
Speaking to reporters, Mr Janša said the country's first presidency in 2008 was shortly after the "golden age" of EU enlargement, but said things had changed since then.
The key theme of the presidency is "resilience", what the Slovenian government says is vital for Europe to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.
This will include developing a so-called European Health Union.
In a statement, the Slovenian government said: "We want to strengthen the strategic autonomy of the EU and improve its capacity to ensure the availability of medicinal products and medical devices, and facilitate their research, development and production. We support the ambitious proposal to establish a Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA)."
In recent weeks, the European Commission has been approving billions of euro for each member state under the Covid recovery fund, and those disbursements will start to be delivered in the autumn.
The funds are conditional on member states reforming their economies in line with the European Green Deal, which aims at net carbon neutrality by 2050, and the increasing digitalisation of public and commercial life.
Slovenia will also focus on the Western Balkans and will emphasise its view that the EU should accelerate the accession of Balkan member states, such as Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia.
Officials say that unless the EU speeds up the accession process, Russia and China will continue to deepen their influence in the Western Balkans.
"If the EU does not expand, others will expand," Mr Janša said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Anže Logar said that Balkan candidate countries should be able to benefit from EU programmes and legislation before accession and should have a role in the Conference of the Future of Europe.
That way, he said, citizens will "expect more of their governments" and will enjoy the approximation of EU standards.
The presidency will also have to tackle the issues of cybersecurity and "cyber-resIlience", in the light of ongoing hacking cases and the alleged undermining of western democracies by Russia.
The presidency will also have to tackle a highly sensitive attempt to reform Europe's asylum and migration rules, including the launch of a new EU Asylum Agency.
This follows an earlier failed attempt to work out at EU level how member states should share the burden of frontline countries, such as Italy and Greece, in receiving, processing and, where necessary, returning migrants entering the EU.
Slovenian Interior Minister Ales Hojs told reporters that last year, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Slovenia recorded more than 11,000 irregular migrant crossings of the Croation-Slovenia border, a similar number to 2019.