Janez Potocnik – leading Slovenia’s accession negotiation

“We wanted to demystify the process.”

In few of the new EU member states was there a person who dominated the accession process as much, and as thoroughly, as Janez Potocnik, head of the negotiating team for the accession of Slovenia to the EU. Potocnik led the process from its beginning in 1998 until 2004, the year of Slovenia’s accession. From 2002 to 2004 he was both head of the negotiating team and Minister for European Affairs.

Born in 1958, Potocnik graduated from the Economics Faculty of the University of Ljubljana in 1983 and obtained a Ph.D. degree at the same University in 1993. His academic work was to lay the foundation for his career. From 1984 to 2001 Potocnik worked in various economic research centres in Ljubljana, including the Institute of Macroeconomic Analysis and Development, which he headed from 1993 to 2001.

In early 1998, Minister for European Affairs Igor Bavcar (in Janez Drnovsek‘s government) asked Potocnik – who had by then co-authored several well-received strategy papers on Slovenia’s economic development – to become head of the negotiating team.

“When I was offered the job, I hesitated for two reasons: I did not have much international experience, nor did I think that I was the best person for all the issues related to European Union accession. I was also afraid of flying; and realised there would be a lot of flying.”

Yet Potocnik accepted. Taking up his post in April 1998, his first task was to help setting up the structures that would lead Slovenia into the EU.

“Two elements behind our process were of utmost importance. One was this special body for coordination – The Government Office for European Affairs – led by the Minister of European Affairs, which aimed to link the accession process directly to the Prime Minister; the second one was the core negotiating team, a group almost entirely formed of experts, not politicians. We were seen as impartial, neither having a political agenda nor a political past; therefore we were acceptable to everybody.”

Slovenia’s institutional setup for the negotiations and the implementation of the acquis proved to be very effective. As Potocnik  pointed out in an article co-written with Fedor Cerne, Emil Erjavec and Mojmir Mrak (two members of his team and his special adviser), “Only a small proportion of [the real negotiations] take place between the EU Member States and the candidate country. They are largely conducted within a candidate country, in particular when preparing the negotiating positions for the submission to the EU.” Transparency and publicity built trust. As such, they became central to the negotiations’ success:

“We published all the negotiating positions in a book, and even on a CD, because we believed there was nothing to hide; we wanted to demystify the process … You needed to keep the process under control at home and clearly explain what was in the true national interest … We gained strong support from almost all the political parties – in Slovenia, Parliament needed to agree with all negotiating positions – and we gained the trust of the citizens. This was reflected in the results of the referendum.”

In March 2003, 89.6% of the Slovenian population voted in favour of accession.

At the EU level, Slovenia faced a different challenge: an image problem. The country, Potocnik recalls, was always close to the bottom of the list in Eurobarometer surveys on EU citizens’ support for accession.

“I discussed it with [then Enlargement Commissioner] Gunter Verheugen many times, that this question was causing me real problems at home, because when the Eurobarometer results were on the table, I was asked at home each year, ‘Why are we going there if they don’t like us?’ But this had nothing to do with liking us or not liking us: it was about knowing us or not knowing us.”

Spurred into action by the Eurobarometer results, Slovenia invested in a charm offensive.

“I think the greatest success consisted in persuading everybody in the EU that Slovenia was well prepared, that it was a non-problematic country with high European standards and values. We had become independent only a few years earlier … The Yugoslav shadow was definitely still over us. Many Europeans at that moment just knew that Slovenia was a former Yugoslav republic and that there was war, and it was also often confused with Slovakia or with Slavonia. For us it was extremely important that at least the European political elites would become aware of our preparedness: we travelled to each and every capital … to present Slovenian negotiating positions, our preparedness and the Slovenian way of thinking. We invited the EU ambassadors based in the country to each presentation. So it was a kind of a multiplier effect: you spread the same message from one capital back to all European capitals. The first time perhaps it was not heard well enough, but when the same message was shared fifteen times, it became impossible to ignore.”

Due to a property restitution dispute with Italy stemming from World War II, Slovenia signed a Europe Agreement with the EU only in 1996, the last of the Central and Eastern European countries to do so. It applied for EU membership the same day. Merely a year later the country was invited to start negotiations alongside Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Poland.

Of the ten countries that joined the EU in May 2004, Slovenia had the second highest GDP per capita, after Cyprus. In January 2007, it became the first of the new EU member states to introduce the Euro; in December 2007 it joined the Schengen area together with eight other EU countries. Slovenia was also the first of the new member states to hold the rotating EU Presidency in the first half of 2008. None of this came as a surprise to Potocnik.

“Slovenia was a normal European country; it was bordering the West, and these borders had always been open. The way of life in Slovenia has also always been very much European. I think EU membership was … a logical step for all of us. I even remember that when Slovenia became a member of the EU on 1 May 2004, the celebrations were enjoyable, but not exaggerated and enthusiastic as in some accession countries; we felt that it was a normal step for us. Slovenia was somehow predestined to become a member of the European Union. For us that was a step which we deserved; which we wanted; which we believed was part of our history; which was natural.”

This feeling of confidence and natural belonging clearly sets apart Slovenia – so far the only former Yugoslav republic to join the EU – from its Balkan neighbours. In Potocnik’s opinion, this is only one of many differences between Slovenia and the countries of the Western Balkans.

“In our case it was a transition, while for the majority of the countries that are now knocking on Europe’s doors it is ‘transition plus’, meaning that there are additional issues related to the recent history of the Western Balkans. The majority of the current candidate countries have a lower level of development and more problems of alignment with the EU acquis and standards than we had.”

Yet even for Slovenia the accession track was crucial for the reform and transition process.

“The process of accession has, in fact, proved to be an extremely useful tool for speeding up the transition process. Clearly determined commitments, accompanied with a precise timetable of the course of the EU accession negotiations, mobilized the policy-makers and the public at large to implement the necessary tasks effectively. A large majority of these tasks would have had to be done irrespective of the country’s accession to the EU. However, without a clear and near perspective of EU membership the risk of delayed implementation of these tasks would have increased substantially.”

This process could work similarly in the Western Balkans. One factor holding back Slovenia’s neighbours, however, is the decrease of enthusiasm for enlargement.

“I think there is a big political problem. When Slovenia acceded in 2004, there was enthusiasm: it was the idea to break down the East/West wall, which had to fall not only in Berlin, but from the Baltic to the Mediterranean Sea. Today this idea is not driving the political process anymore. But I think the issue of future potential accessions is a serious and important one. When we talk about the Western Balkans, we should know that Europe will be really stabilised only when the most unstable part of Europe is stabilised, which is the Western Balkans. The question of Turkey is for me as much a question of the Turkish capability to accommodate European standards as it is a question of Europe’s ambitions in a globalised world. The changes that enlargement have brought have been extremely positive for the European Union and for the countries that acceded. For me it’s more than logical that the process continues.”

Personally, Potocnik hopes that the Western Balkans will make progress on the European path.

“With an open heart which they deserve and need, we can certainly speed up the process. So I hope for the best; we should simply keep our promises, like we did in the past. They should do their job, and we should keep our promises.”

Since 2004, Potocnik has served in two successive European Commissions, dealing with enlargement for a few months in 2004, with science and research from 2004 to 2010, and with environment since February 2010. His latest appointment, he says, is a natural step in his career.

“I do not regret it at all, I think I have learnt a lot, and environment is really rewarding. I like working in the Commission because it is more problem-focused than politics at home, which is more party-focused or even person-focused. Here, we really try to focus on our policy areas and to deliver something. That is, to be honest, much closer to me personally than real party politics … where sometimes a lot of energy is lost without real results.”

In the meantime, Potocnik says, he has also got used to travelling by plane.

17 February 2011