Slovene slalom

Having been a part-time ski instructor as a student, Slovene Ambassador Tadej Rupel knows how to slalom – and dodging obstacles is a useful skill not only on the Julian Alps but in diplomatic negotiations too.

Slovenia avoided major conflict and economic meltdown after its independence from Yugoslavia and was quick to join the EU, NATO the eurozone and to host the OSCE chairmanship and EU presidency.

But even the Slovenes couldn’t slalom around the financial crisis in 2008, he admits, which left some of its banks on the edge of a bailout precipice. “We managed to recapitalise the banks on our own but that left us with higher, but still managebale debt,” says Rupel, an international economist who was Director General for European Policies at the time.

Confidence in the government and traditional parties dropped and early elections in 2014 brought to power the six-week-old SMC party led by legal expert Miro Cerar.

The new government has balanced the budget, strengthened social welfare and restored people’s faith in the country, despite continued austerity measures, explains Rupel. Structural reforms have cut red tape and increased labour market flexibility so that joblessness has dipped below 10% and the economy grew at a healthy 2.5% in 2014.

Rising credit ratings are improving, making Slovenia attractive to investors again as it continues its second round of privatisation.

Austerity and solidarity
Asked if eurozone wobbles over a possible Greek exit from the single currency could dampen the recovery, the Ambassador thinks more could be done to support the Greece. “The emphasis has been on austerity but solidarity, next to solidity, is also important.”

With the Slovene economy out of intensive care, one of Rupel’s priorities will be to promote his country as a “smart investment” and tourist destination. “Doing business in Slovenia is a good springboard to the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe,” he adds. The Embassy is planning a programme of 25 cultural and education events this year to enhance Slovenia’s Central European identity.

Monitoring British political debate – particularly over the UK’s future in the EU – is also important for the Ambassador. Many of Britain’s demands for reform chime with Slovenia, says Rupel – less red tape, a more competitive EU, the creation of a digital single market and more subsidiarity.

However, there are limits. Slovenia is against watering down any of the fundamental EU principles, such as free movement. That would require wider debate and possible treaty change, he says, but adds: “There is scope within the existing EU legislation to address UK’s concerns.”

But internal debates shouldn’t distract attention from the EU’s global economic outlook, he says. Agreements such as TTIP with the US could kickstart economic growth.

Security threats in Europe’s backyard also require close attention, warns Rupel, a security policy expert who served in Washington, Tel Aviv and worked in the Department for Security Policy in Ljubljana.

Unstable neighbourhood
“The Roman Empire collapsed because it failed to pay attention to its neighbourhood,” reflects Rupel who feels that the EU’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ neighbourhood policy proved inadequate for serious developments in the East, notably the conflict in Ukraine. “We need a custom-made approach to each partnership in the region and to widen and deepen the dialogue with all players, including Russia,” he says.

To the south, the EU was caught off guard as Radical Islam filled power vacuums left during the Arab Spring, says Rupel who headed the Africa and Middle East Department at the time of the uprisings.

“We were not prepared for some of the outcomes and we were not ready for the humanitarian crisis,” he says.

The conflict cannot be solved only by military means, but also through diplomacy and intelligence cooperation, says the Ambassador. “Europe and partners need to work together to disrupt their financial resources, to stop the flow of foreign fighters and to have an all-inclusive dialogue with all the players in the region.”

Curbing the spread of “quasi ideologies” is key as returning jihadis bring a security threat to the heart of Europe. “As the Charlie Hebdo tragedy shows, we need more interfaith and intercultural dialogue,” he says.

In adding value to EU foreign policy, Slovenia plays to its strengths. Situated at Europe’s crossroads Slovenia’s focus is on completing trans-European networks and finalising an EU energy union. Also at the confluence of climate zones, Slovenia can share know-how in managing biodiversity and ecology.

Human rights is another foreign policy pillar. The Bled Strategic Forum is in its 10th year and will follow up on the UK summit against sexual violence in conflict. Slovenia is active on demining, through the International Trust Fund, having helped remove landmines in the Western Balkans. It is using its expertise and is now expanding its assistance worldwide. The country is also campaigning for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council (2016-18) and it is supporting Slovenia’s former president Danilo Türk’s intentions to stand for the next UN Secretary General.

Assisting its neighbours to join the Euro-Atlantic clubs is another foreign policy niche. “There is some enlargement fatigue but we will continue to keep accession of the Western Balkan countries on the agenda as this is a powerful trigger for all-inclusive reforms,” he says.

It’s a lot to manage but as Ambassador Rupel knows, whether you are negotiating slippery slopes or difficult diplomacy, momentum is key.

Elizabeth Stewart, the editor of Embassy Magazine, interviewed the Ambassador of Slovenia on 20 January