“The only real obstacle at that time was Italy. We were blocked for one year.”
In 2004, Alojz “Lojze” Peterle, born in 1948, became one of the first Slovenes to be elected to the European Parliament. Despite the fact that his “New Slovenia Christian People’s Party” had won no seats in the 2008 national elections, Peterle was re-elected to the EP in 2009.
Peterle’s high-profile political career began long before his move to Brussels. From 16 May 1990 to 14 May 1992 Peterle served as Slovenia’s prime minister. It was during his tenure – in the summer of 1991, to be precise – that Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia and survived the subsequent ten-day war with the Yugoslav People’s Army. From January 1993 to October 1994 Peterle served as foreign minister in the first government of Janez Drnovsek. He was to resign his post over a disagreement with Drnovsek.
During Peterle’s tenure as prime minister and foreign minister very little indicated that Slovenia would accede to the EU a decade later, together with the Central and Eastern European frontrunners. The political leadership was preoccupied with trying to gain international recognition and – later on – with rebranding the country as part of Central Europe. Peterle worked rapidly to rid Slovenia of its image as a former Yugoslav state.
“At the beginning we had to explain to our interlocutors the origins of Slovenia. In these years we were able to re-establish the image of Slovenia as a Central European and Mediterranean country and not as a Balkan state. When we were not yet negotiating to join the European Union, we devoted quite a lot of time to making this distinction.
The more that our Western partners were coming to us the more they discovered that Slovenia was a quiet, Western country. Once I spoke with Chancellor Kohl in Budapest, in July 1990, I think. He said, ‘We know your origin. You belong to our cultural and civilization circle.’ Of course I was pleased at the time by his words.”
Today, maintains Peterle, a similar strategy is being used by the other former Yugoslav republics.
“I think that they are using the same wording as we did, before we said, we are one of the European countries, geographically, historically, culturally. We belong to Europe, no doubt, but we are not yet members of the European Union. Now you can find the same language in Croatia, Macedonia, and even in Turkey, even though the major part of Turkey is in Asia.”
The claim to a new European identity was not universally popular among Slovenian citizens, however, particularly when viewed against the background of EU accession. “People thought we would lose our sovereignty,” Peterle explains. While Slovenia had avoided the bloodshed of its former Yugoslav neighbours, it had not yet managed to overcome its historical fears.
These came to the fore during a property dispute with Italy. (The dispute, ironically, was a mirror image of the current Croatian-Slovenian quarrel, albeit with the roles reversed and Slovenia on the defensive). In 1992, Italy had recognised Slovenia as a successor party to the Treaty of Rome, an agreement on compensation for expropriated Italian property in the border area after WWII. Just two years later, however, after a centre-right government under Silvio Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini came to power, Italy demanded the return of the properties in kind. To flex its diplomatic muscle, Berlusconi’s government blocked the signing of an EU association agreement with Slovenia.
Peterle, then foreign minister, was accused by members of his own coalition and opposition politicians of surrendering to Italian demands. In October 1994 he signed an accord giving Italians the right to buy back their property if it came up for sale. The accord, however, was rejected by parliament.
Eventually, the dispute was resolved under the Spanish EU presidency. Under the “Spanish compromise”, the Slovenian side agreed to a provision whereby EU nationals who had legally and continuously resided for three years on the present territory of the Republic of Slovenia could, subject to reciprocity, acquire title to land. No other accession country had to liberalise its property markets before accession.
“We had to accept the Italian political interests expressed through the European Union position and we accepted, as the only candidate country, to change the constitution to allow foreigners to buy land in Slovenia [before we became a member]. This was not a pleasant feeling for us, because the other candidate countries were not obliged to do that.”
Not surprisingly, the “Spanish compromise” became highly unpopular in Slovenia, feeding fears of a sell-out of the Slovenian coast.
“Many Slovenes said, ‘We are poor now. The Italians, the Austrians and Germans have money and can come now and buy everything in Slovenia.’ This was really the fear and the expectation.
Land maybe plays a bigger role in smaller countries. This has been caused by the fact that our neighbours were interested in taking parts of Slovenia – not only the three occupying countries who invaded Slovenia during the Second World War, the Germans, Italians and Hungarians.
Hitler said ‘Machen Sie mir dieses Land wieder Deutsch’ (‘Make these lands German again’). Mussolini said, ‘We’ll bring this land a higher culture.’ I don’t know what the Hungarians said. We have minorities in all our neighbouring countries. We don’t think that history was very just to us.
So our people at that time had the attitude, ‘Don’t allow the foreigners to come and buy our holy land!’ But now there are many foreigners buying land here and there. We are pleased with some of them, especially if they take care of the cultural heritage. So it is not, I think, such big a problem. I think that the fears were bigger than the reality.”
Indeed, the fears proved completely unwarranted. According to the Slovenian government, 21 months after the respective law entered into force, a mere total of 49 requests had been filed. Six rulings establishing reciprocity were issued to three nationals of Austria, two nationals of Italy and one German.
By then, however, Peterle had been long out of government. His Christian Democrats had suffered a major defeat in the 1996 elections, though Peterle remained their chairman until 2000. His party then merged with the Slovenian People’s Party, who had until then supported Janez Drnovsek’s third government. When they withdrew their support, Drnovsek’s government fell apart. Peterle was again foreign minister in a short-lived centre-right government from June to November 2000. The 2000 elections brought back Drnovsek.
Shortly thereafter, Peterle left the Slovenian People’s Party to join the newly founded New Slovenia Christian People’s Party. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2004. In 2007 Peterle ran for president, but lost in a run-off against Danilo Türk, an independent candidate. Peterle has retained his seat in the European Parliament, where he is a permanent member of the foreign affairs committee.