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Peter Grk, National Coordinator For Western Balkans, Ministry Of Foreign Affairs Of Slovenia

The EU Still Feels Like Home

The date of 1st May 2004 represented a day of hope and new beginnings, as Slovenia became a member of the European Union. We felt as though we’d finally arrived where we always belonged: in the family of democratic and liberal European countries, who share common standards, norms and values

The road to membership was long and, looking back, we would never have fulfilled this dream if EU accession hadn’t been treated as a national project, the biggest and most important one after independence. It’s worth underlining again that this wasn’t a project of political elites, but rather a project ingrained into all pores of society. It was driven by civil society and citizens, who understood the value and, ultimately, the necessity of being part of the most advanced and ambitious political project in the history of Europe.

Of course, we had our doubts and fears (like everybody embarking on a journey into the unknown), as we were a very young country that had just recently gained its independence, and the lessons learned/experiences from the past were still fresh in our collective memory.

After 20 years, it is appropriate to look back and attempt to analyze the impact EU membership has had on Slovenian society; on our economic, social, political and cultural development. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to answer one simple question that everybody asks themselves, especially if they have been living together for a long time: would I do it again?

Slovenia recorded its highest ever annual GDP growth rates in the years immediately after joining the EU, when our economy began participating fully in the Single Market

Personally, I certainly would do it again, and this feeling is still shared by a vast majority of Slovenian citizens. Although the EU has gone through many crises over the previous decades and many questions have been raised about the ability of the Union to survive in the broader geopolitical context, the support of Slovenian citizens for the EU has always remained strong and unquestionable. Why?

Let’s start with the economy.

By becoming part of the European Single Market, Slovenian companies gained access to around 450 million consumers, which was crucial to their growth and development. Slovenia recorded its highest ever annual GDP growth rates in the years immediately after joining the EU, when our economy began participating fully in the Single Market. To date, our per capita GDP has more than doubled compared to the year before accession: up from around €13,200 in 2003 to €27,000 in 2023. By becoming an EU member state, Slovenia also became eligible for EU budget funding. Over the previous 20 years, more than 15.000 projects – infrastructural, business, educational, social, touristic or energy – have been implemented with the help of European funding. Between 2004 and 2023, Slovenia received €14.3 billion from the EU budget and paid €8.7 billion, meaning that Slovenia has received more than €4.7 billion from the EU budget over the last two decades.

In combination with the euro, cohesion funding and other support policies, this has brought progressive upward economic convergence and has steadily reduced the extent to which Slovenia lags behind older EU member states. The Slovenian standard of living rose from 78% of the EU average in 2004 to 90% of the EU average in 2022.

However, the benefits of EU membership go far beyond the purely economic.

Membership enables our citizens to move, study or work freely throughout the EU, while goods, services and money can move almost as freely as they can within the borders of a single country.

Slovenian standard of living rose from 78% of the EU average in 2004 to 90% of the EU average in 2022

Slovenian tourism has boomed since our country joined the EU. Slovenia recorded 15.6 million overnight tourist stays in 2022, which is twice as many as arrived in the year prior to EU accession. This has created new tourism sector jobs and revenue.

Every year, 2,200 Slovenian students and young people take part in Erasmus+, which gives them the opportunity to study or gain work experience abroad, enriching their education and giving them the chance to acquire valuable international experience.

Free mobility contributes to the transfer and exchange of knowledge and information, which in turn enhances human capital. We have improved our environmental standards and legislation, while the development of Digital Single Market has extended the freedoms of the single market to the digital sphere.

Ljubljana, Slovenia.

EU membership also enables us to better tackle global challenges like climate change, migration, pandemics, security threats and political instability in our neighbourhood.

And finally comes something that I need to both underline and highlight: solidarity. The EU is a family in which solidarity is one of the most important values. Slovenia was hit by catastrophic floods last year, and the level of solidarity shown by the EU and its member states was unimaginable (for lack of a better word).

These are just a few examples that clearly show why we desired so strongly to join the EU and why we believe that only a strong, democratic and resilient European Union is capable of leading by example in the new global geostrategic environment.

WORK IN PROGRESS

The EU remains a work in progress. The Union clearly isn’t the same today as it was 20 years ago, when Slovenia joined the club. Decades of crises and a shifting global environment have left the EU with many questions over our common future. As a sui generis political project, the EU must evolve, adapt and change in order to thrive as one of the most important global actors in the new geopolitical reality.

Over the last 20 years, Slovenians have demonstrated that we are trustworthy, active and responsible partners within the EU, while our ambition is for the Union to grow, develop and integrate.

But what represents the building blocks of this new, more resilient, democratic, transparent and ambitious Union?

Enlargement towards the countries of the Western Balkans, which are already located at the heart of Europe, is a must and a geopolitical necessity

Let’s start with the most obvious policy, which was – and remains – the most successful tool to enhance democratic transition and economic development in Europe: enlargement. Slovenia believes that the EU cannot become a reliable and strong partner in the global international community without the final consolidation of the European continent. Now, more than ever, when the European neighbourhood is in flames and we have conflicts to the east and to the south of our territory, we need to make bold and geostrategic decisions that will bring countries with a European perspective closer to, and ultimately into, the European family. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is a sad reminder of what happens when the EU fails to exercise its influence over its immediate neighbourhood. In this context, enlargement towards the countries of the Western Balkans, which are already located at the heart of Europe, is a must and a geopolitical necessity. Slovenia will remain among the most ferocious and adamant advocates of a swift and efficient enlargement process. That’s simply because we know what enlargement brings – both to the EU and to the accession countries. The aforementioned facts are more than evident.

Moreover, the EU needs to change in such a way that it becomes less dependent on external factors and more autonomous in critical areas like technology, economics, energy, defence and security. The EU needs to increase its own competitiveness, while at the same time preserving the kind of social model that represents the backbone of our modern society.

Am I optimistic? Certainly! The EU has gone through many battles, crises and issues over the past 20 years, and despite many having predicted its demise, it is still here, and is more vibrant and resilient than ever. Slovenia is a proud member of the EU and is looking forward to the next 20 years

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