AIM: start

SAT, 31 MAR 2001 18:51:48 GMT

Slovenia and the European Union

Abolishment of Equality

Hardly four years have gone by since the latest amendment of Slovenian Constitution when at the initiative of Rome and Brussels, European officials decided that the latest intervention was not sufficient; therefore, it was suggested to Ljubljana to further amend its Constitution and the parliamentarian bodies promptly ratified this proposal initialed by the government of Janez Drnovsek

AIM Ljubljana, March 28, 2001

Until the month of July Sweden chairs the European Union; that was the reason why Swedish foreign minister visited Ljubljana and handed in an unexpected demand to her hosts - that before becoming an official and equal member of the Union Slovenia amend its legislature that regulates real-estate turnover for foreigners (only those from the countries of the EU, of course). Therefore, Slovenia needs to abolish the principle of reciprocity and re-write not only its laws but also Article 68 of the Constitution which defines real-estate turnover in Slovenia.

The news would not have been anything special if only four years ago Slovenian administration had not been forced to amend its laws and the Constitution after strong pressure had been exerted on it from Rome and Brussels, with sharp rhetoric in the parliament. Until then Slovenian Constitution had limited sale of real estate to foreigners, in other words - completely prevented them from buying land.

"Foreigners may achieve property right to real-estate pursuant the requirements determined by law. Foreigners may not acquire the property right to land, except in case of inheritance and reciprocity condition". And the reciprocity condition meant that Slovenia would act to newcomers from EU countries equally as other states to its citizens. Therefore, if in some country a Slovenian citizen can inherit property, according to the principle of reciprocity the same shall be permitted to a citizen of that country. Such and similar laws in the states founded on the territory of former SFR Yugoslavia were one of the reasons for the rush of the people to acquire more than one citizenship, because the very acquisition of dual or multiple citizenship ensured the achievement of individual rights. That was the only way people could ensure inheritance of real estate in the once brotherly republics, among which not a single legal link had remained intact after the wars they had fought. The exception were those who possessed real-estate in Slovenia since the times before the new laws were passed; they still freely use and dispose of their property.

Such a solution did not suit some citizens of the EU. These were primarily "esulis" and "optants", former inhabitants of the parts of Slovenia (and Croatia) who after 1945 were forced to choose their citizenship. Majority of them chose to be Italian citizens and consequently were forced to leave their homes, on the basis of peace agreement between Italy and Yugoslavia. The territories where they happened to be became part of Yugoslavia after the war and nowadays they are part of Slovenia and Croatia. After dissolution of Yugoslavia former inhabitants wished that the newly founded states leave their communist past behind and give them back their pre-war property. They once had to abandon or sell their estates dirt cheap; now they want them back, and if that is not possible (and it is not, because the rights of the new owners were protected by contracts once signed by Italy and Yugoslavia) they demanded that they at least be allowed to buy their former estates. The pressure of the "esulis" and their organisations shook up the political Right in Italy, it shook up Italian government, and Italian government shook up Brussels; Brussels pulled the brakes and negotiations on associated membership of Slovenia in the EU were interrupted for three long years!

During that three-year interruption, Italy pressured Slovenia and almost won a significant diplomatic victory. That is when Lojze Peterle in the capacity of foreign minister of Slovenia signed the Oglej agreement the fourth article of which prescribed the right of priority sale of real-estate to the citizens of Italy on the whole territory of Slovenia! In other words, the Italians had the right not only to a hundred odd estates in the narrow strip of littoral (where they once lived), but the Italians could count on about seven thousand estates in the region which extends all the way to Postojna which is hardly 50 kilometres away from Ljubljana, and even more. In this way Slovenia has practically swallowed a revision not only of the Osim but also of the Paris Peace Agreement. By a clever formulation of the Oglej agreement Italy made it clear that it by no means wishes to limit return of property of its citizens just to Zone B (half of the once controversial territory around Trieste) but that it has aspirations to the whole territory Slovenia, that is, at least to the province of Primorska which was liberated during the Second World War from Italian occupation and later annexed to Yugoslavia.

To make things even more interesting, thanks to the skill of diplomats of Tito's Yugoslavia that part of property was paid in full to Italy while settling war indemnity. In other words, had Slovenian government supported Peterle's decision and ratified "Oglej agreement" it would have taken it upon itself to amend its Constitution at an emergency procedure (before definitely signing the contract on associated membership in the European Union), to make a list of property of the Italians in Slovenia and pass a moratorium on turnover of that property. This agreement was, however, rejected by Slovenian government.

A somewhat more rightful diplomatic solution of the controversy was then brought to Ljubljana by Javier Solana; in honour of the state he comes from the 13th Annex of the Contract on Associated Membership of Slovenia in the EU was popularly called the "Spanish compromise". The essence of the compromise was Slovenia's agreement to open its real-estate market to all the citizens of the EU (regardless of its possible acceptance into membership) in three years time, while in the meantime real-estate could be purchased by all the former "inhabitants of Slovenia" who had lived on its territory for at least three years, "optants" inclusive. Rome and Brussels were both satisfied.

That is why the wonder is nowadays even greater - how is it possible that neither European diplomats nor their Slovenian partners once and for all determined four years ago how laws and the Constitution should be formulated? It turned out that it is controversial that even after "European adjustment” the formulation on "reciprocity" was preserved in Slovenian Constitution. Until now this has not seemed controversial to anybody, since reciprocity is part of the practice applied in international relations. "Until recently not even the best informed suspected that it would be necessary to amend the Constitution again in connection with sale of real-estate to foreigners", reports the appalled reporter of Delo daily from Brussels after the statement of Swedish minister.

Why has reciprocity suddenly become a problem? Some states (like Denmark) managed to procure for themselves a different treatment in Brussels from the one offered to its new members. Denamrk has preserved strict bans of real-estate sale in the bordering region in order to prevent that land from becoming easy prey for rich Germans who would gladly buy weekend cottages in Denmark. In this context, if the paragraph on "reciprocity" were accepted in case of Slovenia at the moment it is received in the EU, it would mean that the states such as Denmark would have reason to feel "discriminated", because their citizens would not be allowed to buy real-estate in Slovenia (just like Slovenians in Denmark).

The shock after the visit of the Swedish Minister was short-lived; and then Drnovsek's government took the law into its own hands and decided to react responsibly and expeditiously. It bravely proposed a new amendment of the already amended Article 68 of the Constitution. Minister of European Affairs, Igor Bavcar, and the head of the team for negotiations with the EU Janez Potocnik proposed that parliamentarian committees ratify the government proposal ("in the interest of joining the EU") which was done very shortly after that.

There is a lesson in this story; on rare occasions are relations between states so transparent. Once we would have called such relations a protectorate, vassalage or, more mildly put, limitation of sovereignty. Historians and economists studied them mostly on the examples of former African and Latin-American colonies. Nowadays such relations of inequality are mostly concealed and invisible, packed into the laws that regulate market economy, standardisation rules, opened communications and norms that need to be cut according to “European standards”. This is practically an unprecedented case of a group of privileged states so clearly and even formally demanding from another state to agree to inequality and abolishing protective measures such as reciprocity; and moreover that state agrees to meet the demanded conditions quickly and without a discussion. “Independence is the function of size” warned late Dr. Aleksandar Bajt before Slovenia had won independence. He was beaten up in Tivoli for that statement. The beating, however, has not silenced him, and only nowadays is it obvious how right he was. Ten years after Slovenia had become independent, Slovenian politicians still sing praises to independence, while on the other hand there is nothing easier for them than to change the highest legal act and laws of this state, whenever any of the members of the European Union pleases.

Igor Mekina

(AIM Ljubljana)