Slovenia, with just 2 million inhabitants, is expected to use its role coordinating EU policies until June to shift the bloc's foreign-policy attention to the western Balkans, and Kosovo in particular.
Any EU presidency holds out opportunities and challenges for the incumbent. The primary challenge lies in keeping the EU's course steady. As the first of the EU's 10 postcommunist member states to take the helm, Slovenia will face a tough test. It will have been made easier, however, by the achievement of its smallish predecessor, Portugal, in forging a consensus on the new EU treaty, which was signed in December.
Slovenia faces a major opportunity in the chance to direct the EU's attention to issues that are of particular interest to the holder of the presidency. Ljubljana has already said it wants the EU to focus on the western Balkans, and in particular Kosovo, during the next six months. This comes in sharp contrast to Portugal's preoccupation with Africa.
Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel in December confirmed Ljubljana's commitment to aiding the resolution of Kosovo's status. "I hope we can contribute to resolving the Kosovo question during our [EU] presidency," Rupel said. "In view of what has happened in recent months, we understand that Slovenia will have to deal with these most complicated processes during its presidency." He went on to predict that "these processes will be concluded by the end of our presidency."
Rupel was quoted by AP as saying on January 1 that "the western Balkans must be guaranteed a European perspective." According to Rupel, Slovenia sees the region as its primary responsibility as the current EU presidency. "This will be our contribution to stabilizing the part of Europe which has been most affected by events at the end of the 20th century," he said.
Slovenia's most immediate concern, as Kosovo appears prepared to declare its independence from Serbia, will be to ensure effective EU leadership in managing the transition. The EU accepts that Kosovo's days as a Serbian province are numbered, but hopes the Kosovar leadership will yield to close international supervision.
Slovenia's presidency will presumably be at the forefront of EU efforts at avoiding any spillover effects -- whether in the Balkans or other regions where separatists will be hoping for a precedent. Managing the transition in Kosovo itself will be a relatively easy task by comparison, as the EU has long-term plans in place for financial aid and institutional assistance. Stopping attempts to use Kosovo as a blueprint by separatists in Georgia or Moldova, on the other hand, will require deft diplomatic footwork from Slovenia. Georgia, in particular, will be following very closely the EU's response to possible attempts by Russia to profit from the situation. The handiest and most common tool in the EU arsenal is "presidency statements," which are now Slovenia's responsibility.
The focus on Kosovo will inevitably mean less attention to other areas. Thus Brussels' European Neighborhood Policy is likely to be shifted to the back burner for the next six months. Slovenia's own presidency program notes that short-term EU interest in the neighborhood will be confined to "economic cooperation and enhanced people-to-people contacts." A meeting with countries participating in the EU-led "Black Sea Synergy" initiative will take place in Ukraine.
Central Asia will see the adoption of national programs within the framework of the EU's Central Asia Strategy, adopted in June at Germany's initiative. Slovenia will lead a debate on the first results of the strategy at a June summit.
Slovenia's global agenda will be dominated by two well-established EU concerns -- climate change and energy. Under Slovenian leadership, the EU will continue to push for an international agreement on carbon-dioxide emissions after 2012 when the Kyoto treaty expires. The EU is also likely to formally approve the Nabucco natural-gas pipeline that is eventually intended to link it to the gas reserves around the Caspian Sea.
Another key EU preoccupation will be immigration. EU leaders agreed in December to work together to curb illegal immigration, but also committed themselves to moves to develop a policy for allowing limited legal immigration.
The EU has proclaimed 2008 "the year of intercultural dialogue."