Slovenia may be among the smallest European Union member states, but it is also among the most committed to the bloc’s values. It is also the only country that managed to avoid a traumatic secession from the Yugoslav federation in 1991.

But this story is taking a different turn. It came as a surprise that a populist, right-wing and openly anti-EU party celebrated electoral success in the country’s latest elections held in June 2018.

Nevertheless, pro-EU political parties formed a coalition government.

European Interest met and interviewed Igor Šoltes, a member of the European Parliament for the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, who was elected in 2014 leading the list Verjamem (I believe).

Šoltes, who served as the President of the Court of Auditors of Slovenia between 2004 and 2013, spoke about the situation in Slovenia, the rise of nationalism in Europe and the EU relations with Western Balkans.

As Šoltes prepares to run in the upcoming EU elections with his own list, he is promoting the idea there is no other alternative to European integration.

European Interest: You are a fervent supporter of European integration. But how do you explain the rise of the far-right and nationalism in EU countries?

Igor Šoltes: This is a serious issue that emerged a few years ago during the refuge crisis. The far-right parties started a negative campaign against the EU, migrants and human rights. They are using negative speech, they promote nationalism through populist language trying to present themselves as the only leaders who can solve the problems facing the poor. The problem is that these nationalist parties exploit a moment of division in Europe: from North to South and from West to East. Particularly the south faced a crisis for many years during a time when Europe wasn’t strong enough to move forward. It had to show more solidarity and not only look at financial issues. To show that it cares more about the people.

Do you think the EU is under threat?

We should realise that not only we are the Europe of 28 countries, but also the Europe of different cultures. And to live together in this multicultural society is a positive side of Europe. This is the fundamental of Europe. And we have to decide which kind of Europe we want to have in the future. Because over the past five years we have seen a series of problems. It is very easy for the nationalists to call for Brexit or Frexit and so on and try to demolish EU values and to call for a Europe of Nations. But if you promote nationalism, if you promote the idea that your nation is the only one you lead to a dangerous path.

And we have to decide which kind of Europe we want to have in the future. if you promote nationalism, if you promote the idea that your nation is the only one you lead to a dangerous path

As a country with a peaceful tradition to political transitions, Slovenia did not remain immune to the rise of right-wing populism. How concerned are you about such an ‘innovation’ in domestic politics?

I am not surprised because Slovenia is not an isolated island in Europe. We have a nationalist party that promotes the same politics as Orbán or Salvini or the Austrian FPO. This means we are surrounded by countries where nationalism found a way to become electorally successful. In Slovenia as well, there are parties that say migrants represent a threat to our values. Because it is easier to find a place on the front page of the newspapers or at the top of websites. The problem is that in Slovenia we reacted too late to the hate speech. It is a problem for our prosecutor and our politicians. They must speak out and explain what happened. If we don’t respond now, then the hate speech will be the speech of the majority.

As regards the Balkans, are you satisfied about the process of single countries toward a future EU enlargement?

I am not because we promised a lot in the past. After the 2004 enlargement we visited the Western Balkan countries and we tried to help them. And those countries spent many years trying to integrate European rules and European values in their legislation. The European Commission in the past gave a lot of hope to those people – that the EU is the only way to achieve a better life. And people believed this. If you compare the situation in those countries 15 years ago with today, you can see many differences. Now if we leave the Western Balkan countries in the waiting room too long, we cannot expect that everything will move in the right direction. Nationalists will emerge sooner or later arguing that the “European bureaucrats” betrayed them, promised a lot in order to make important changes but they don’t have even the candidate country status yet’.

Now if we leave the Western Balkan countries in the waiting room too long, we cannot expect that everything will move in the right direction. Nationalists will emerge sooner or later

Are you closely following the Kosovo issue and especially the visa liberalisation process?

Yes, you can imagine! Kosovo is the only country in Western Balkans where visa requirements still exist. Kosovo fulfilled the two important conditions issued by the European Commission, the fight against corruption and the organised crime and second the border demarcation with Montenegro. The second was a sensitive issue. And then as I said nothing happened. And now people in Kosovo feel disappointed, they believe that the country doesn’t deserve this. This is to give you an example of how problematic it can become when you promise something, and you don’t keep your promise. We in the European Parliament and also the Commission have a positive position, but the final decision is up to the European Council. We are talking only about the visa liberalisation which will help not only Kosovo but the entire region to avoid isolation.

Kosovo still attracts Serbian hostility. And now, what about its decision to create its own army?

There are many difficult issues here. The creation of Kosovo opened many chapters. But this a test for the EU to see how much it understands the Balkans. Because Bosnia Herzegovina represents also a problem since it is a country with a specific regime and the Bosnian nationalism is on the rise.

In Bosnia Herzegovina, there are the national communities but around them exists also the civil society. To recognise the country as a civil society is the only solution for the future.

I believe there is no other alternative to the European integration

You will be contesting the next EU elections in Slovenia, again. What’s the core of your campaign?

When I hear politicians speak against the EU I always ask them: “What is the alternative?” I believe there is no other alternative to the European integration. The EU can become better and more oriented to people. Our main slogan is: Food, water, air and freedom. These are the very important issues for Slovenia. We must protect them for the next generations. And I am very proud with our achievement two years ago when we put in our Constitution that the drinking water is a human right. It is the only Constitution with such a declaration. Considering drinkable water a basic right sends a very important message.