The leader of a small EU country, in office for less than a year, might be expected to tread cautiously on the big issues in Brussels.
Not Slovenian Prime Minister Marjan Šarec. In an interview with POLITICO, the former actor and comedian accused Jean-Claude Juncker’s European Commission of being biased against his country for party political reasons, weighed in on who the next Commission chief should be and declared European Parliament President Antonio Tajani unfit to hold his office.
For good measure, he also revealed he’d told fellow EU leaders that Brexit Britain was like someone trying to commit suicide by drowning — and risked dragging the rest of them down too because it didn’t want to be saved.
Šarec only joined the ALDE alliance of European liberal parties last year but he seems to have adopted some of its talking points with the zeal of the converted. Above all, particularly in the run-up to next month’s European Parliament election, that means taking aim at the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and its dominance of EU institutions.
At the heart of the 41-year-old prime minister’s beef with the Commission is a long-running dispute between his country and Croatia over the precise location of their common border. Šarec accused the Commission of going easy on Croatia because its government is run by an EPP party and the Commission presidency is in the hands of EPP veteran Jean-Claude Juncker.
Šarec said the Commission should have called on Croatia to respect the ruling of an international arbitration panel that found in Slovenia’s favor in 2017.
“We need a European Commission which will obey the rule of law … we need a Commission which will be less political,” he declared.
Croatia has said it withdrew from the arbitration process in 2015 after media reports revealed contacts between the Slovenian judge on the panel and Slovenia’s representative in the case. Šarec, however, noted that the final ruling made clear that this issue was not serious enough to invalidate the arbitration process.
“We were disappointed when Mr. Juncker didn’t clearly say that we should obey the rule of law. He said he won’t take sides — not Slovenian nor Croatian … What he should say is ‘you must obey the rule of law,’” Šarec said.
Šarec said Slovenia and other smaller countries are also irked by what he suggested is a Commission bias in favor of larger countries. He said he wants a Commission that will be more of an “advocate of weaker states.” Comments such as Juncker’s famous remark that France was allowed some leeway on fiscal rules “because it is France” is “what bothers us,” he said.
Šarec has expressed his disappointment in Juncker | Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images
The Commission declined to respond directly to Šarec’s criticism. But a spokesperson noted that Juncker “deliberately and symbolically” launched a dialogue on the future of Europe in Slovenia “in what others sometimes refer to as ‘smaller and newer’ member states, paying tribute to Slovenia.”
On the border dispute, the spokesperson noted the executive arm of the EU “encouraged both parties to find an amicable solution to this matter.”
Šarec took the helm of his country of some 2 million people in September, forming a multiparty coalition after a general election three months earlier.
He will be one of the 28 EU leaders (or 27, if Britain has managed to leave by then) charged with nominating the next president of the European Commission later this year. And he already has one prominent candidate in mind — Margrethe Vestager, the competition commissioner, who hails from Šarec’s ALDE political family and is also from a relatively small country, Denmark.
Officially, Vestager is one of a slate of ALDE candidates for top EU jobs but she is widely regarded as the liberals’ best shot at the Commission presidency.
Vestager is “one of the best commissioners. We talked several times and I see her view on the future of the European Union … is common sense,” Šarec said.
He stressed that “I’m not a federalist” but wants an EU that can take fast decisions. “I see we just prolong some decisions,” he said.
Like a number of other EU leaders, Šarec is against the Spitzenkandidat process that would hand the Commission presidency to someone who has run as a lead candidate in the European Parliament election. Used for the first time in the appointment of Juncker in 2014, the process — Šarec noted — is not enshrined in EU treaties.
“It’s not legal … it’s not democratic,” he said.
Another target of his frustration is European Parliament President Tajani of Italy, who has in recent months made remarks seen as suggesting an Italian claim on territories of Slovenia and Croatia (although Tajani denied any such inference) and declared Mussolini did “positive things” for Italy.
Šarec described Tajani’s remarks as “outrageous.” He said everything should be done to ensure the next president of the European Parliament is not someone who indulges in historical revisionism.
Šarec is one of several comedians and actors who have made the transition to politics in recent years. Comedian Beppe Grillo founded the 5Star Movement, which is now in power in Italy. And Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian with no previous political experience, is the front-runner in Ukraine’s presidential election.
“I was delighted that Slovenia is not only the country which is taking that path,” Šarec joked when asked about Zelenskiy.
Šarec was at one time a comedian who imitated politicians before he became one. He said not all actors and comedians would make good politicians but some attributes come in handy in both fields.
“For acting, for comedy, you must read a lot, you must observe a lot, you must study characters and it’s not so simple,” he said. “In politics you have to have courage, you have to perform, you have to know a lot of things. You must be a quick learner.”