Antonio Tajani And The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Despite the outrage it caused in Muddy Hollows and beyond, the shitstorm triggered by European Parliament president Antonio Tajani in a speech during a commemorative event close to Slovenian-Italian border, could hardly have come at a better time. At least as far as Slovenian political landscape is concerned.

Antonio Tajani (photo by
Plamen Stoimenov/EU2018BG)

In case you missed it, the veteran politician and co-chair of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia had some choice words for the crowd gathered at Bazovica (Basovizza), a small town on the Italian side of the Slovenia-Italy border, commemorating victims of post-war massacres.

His speech brimmed with the revisionist narrative of Italy being the victim rather than a perpetrator of World War II and included the statement that “people with red star on their hats” (translation: Communists) killed people after World War II simply because they were Italians and ended with the words “Long live Italian Istria, long live Italian Dalmatia”.

This came on the heels of Mateo Salvini, interior minister, leader of Eurosceptic La Legad and deputy PM (but in reality, the man calling most of the shots in the country’s coalition government), claiming there are dead children in the foibe (a highly disputable claim) and equating the victims in the foibe with the victims of Auschwitz.

Put it all together and the Salvini/Tajani duo was effectively accusing the Yugoslav (mostly Slovenian and Croatian) units of Tito’s partisan army of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

72 hours later, Salvini’s reputation as a fascist piece of shit is firmly entrenched this side of the border, while Tajani’s revisionism achieved what no one to date has been able to. It united Slovenia and Croatia in a common foreign/European affairs objective as well as unified Muddy Hollows’ diplomatic apparatus at the same time.

Background

The causes and effects of Italian Fascist regime in the Primorska, Istria and Dalmatia regions (now parts of Slovenia and Croatia) between both world wars as well as its role in occupation and partition of Slovenia during WWII (including but not limited to encircling the entire city of Ljubljana with barbed wire) have been well documented.

The same goes for events immediately after WWII and the exodus of Italian population from these regions, including the post-war killings as the question of just how much of the exodus was voluntary and how much forced.

The region on the Slovenian (then Yugoslav)-Italian border was a flashpoint long after the end of WWII and the situation was only defused with the Treaty of Osimo in 1975 which finally partitioned the disputed area, arranged for ease of travel of the people leaving near the border, secured the rights of ethnic minorities on either side and settled the questions of war reparations.

However, with the dissolution of Yugoslavia revisionist ideas sprung up in Italy centred around the notion of renegotiating or repudiating the Treaty of Osimo. Slovenia flat out refused any such notions but due to its inexperienced diplomacy was taken to the cleaners by their Italian counterparts on more than one occasion and was forced to give concessions in relation to the property and real estate confiscated after WWII, during its EU accession negotiations.

(Off topic: Slovenia applied the lesson learned in 2009 when it blocked Croatian entry to the EU over the border dispute between the two countries)

Anyway, as post-war revisionist narrative was gaining prominence in Italian politics, so did the question of foibe and the victims in them. In late 1990s the relations became so strained that an independent bilateral expert committee of was formed in order to examine the history or relation between the two peoples.

The committee came to conclusion, as one would expect, that Italians and Slovenians share a lot of common history, some of it quite lethal. But – crucially in this case– that foibe massacres cannot be ascribed solely to Tito’s guerrilla army nor does the number of victims reach thousands. In fact, as sad as their deaths were, the number of victims is thought to be in the hundreds. No official numbers are known as the Italian side is dead set against any exhumation. And according to other sources, there are no child victims buried in the foibe.

Talking points

Fast forward to February 2018 and this report, often-times forgotten as a sideshow, suddenly plays a central part in the forceful Slovenian response to statements by Salvini and Tajani.

PM Šarec, FM Cerar and President Pahor all echoed basically the same thing. Invoking the conclusions of the report as baseline, they accused both Italian politicians of historical revisionism and singled out Tajani as making territorial claims.

Rarely has Slovenian diplomacy at its most senior level spoken in such unity. Everyone knew their part, and everyone stuck to the – apparently coordinated* talking points. The fact that there was coordination in the first place is a small miracle in a country known for having three foreign ministers (president, PM and foreign minister) whose foreign policy views clash more often than not.

Moreover, except for a short window in 1990-1991, Slovenian and Croatian diplomacy were never in such lockstep as they were in the past few days.

While there was some bilateral activity – President Pahor, for example, wrote to his Italian counterpart Mattarella, outlining Slovenian grievances – both Slovenia and Croatia avoided a direct confrontation with Italy, mostly ignoring Salvini and instead focusing on Tajani.

This ultimately proved to be one hell of a smart move.

Avoiding the Macron scenario

What Salvini was doing ultimately amounts to a border provocation. He wanted a vitriolic Slovenian and Croatian reaction which would undoubtedly lead to more demagoguery, cries of “Slavic hatred towards the peaceful Italian people” and twisted claims that his all this proves his point.

It was a page straight out of his government’s playbook, witnessed only a couple of days ago when Luigi Di Maio, the other deputy PM and leader of the Five Stars movement (technically, the senior partner in the Italian coalition, but much more inexperienced) went to France and hobnobbed with les gilets jaunes, applauding their cause (whatever that is) and egging them on in their protests against president Macron.

Monsieur le president obviously flew into a rage and recalled the French ambassador to Rome, which is exactly the kind of reaction populists and political charlatans the likes of Di Maio and Salvini thrive on.

Therefore, Ljubljana and Zagreb were keen to avoid this scenario which is why after a round of condemnation by leadership of both countries, their respective MEPs took the lead and proceeded to tear Tajani a new asshole.

Leading the charge were Tanja Fajon (SD/S&D) and Ivo Vajgl (DeSUS/ALDE) but they were soon joined in this by Lojze Peterle (NSI/EPP). Which was already a harbinger of things to come.

From the get-go, the heat Tajani was facing was so intense he issued a public apology at the beginning of EP plenary session in Strasbourg two days after the event in Bazovica.

Non-apology

Only he actually made it worse. His was in fact a non-apology to the tune of “I apologise if I offended anybody” and claimed that his message was one of peace.

This, of course, is laughable at best. What Tajani was trying to do was to indulge in some crude campaigning just months before the European elections, to craft one message for the attendants of the Bazovica event (arguably, people more amenable to the nativist/nationalist narrative) and then deliver a completely different, pro-European message in Strasbourg and Brussels.

How he thought that would fly in an era of mass communication and in a language that is relatively widely spoken in both Slovenia and Croatia is a bit of a mystery. Maybe he’s just stupid.

Because while he well delivered his message to his target audience, he simultaneously provided a cause celebre to Slovenian and Croatian MEPs who are hoping to get re-elected to five more years of the Brussels gig.

Now, pengovsky doesn’t have a clear overview of the EU debate in Croatia (perfunctory googling suggest it will mostly consist of red herrings the likes of Istanbul Declaration and the Marrakesh Agreement), but in Muddy Hollows there is virtually no awareness of wider European issues.

While this was perhaps an opening smaller (and post-political) parties the likes of The Pirate Party and Greens were looking for, the opening salvos of the European election campaign repositioned the debate firmly into the David/Goliath narrative of big bad Italy yet again picking on small and defenceless Slovenia which, against all odds once already kicked their ass and joined the EU precisely because it doesn’t want to do it again (but will, if necessary).

This, of course, if an environment where traditional parties thrive. No wonder they all leapt at the opportunity.

All? Not exactly.

The SDS conundrum

Not only did Antonio Tajani provide a welcome distraction in what was shaping up to be an anemic campaign, he also created a situation which put Janez Janša’s SDS in one hell of a bind.

The SDS which – just like Tajani’s Forza Italia is an EPP member – is rabidly nativist, switching between anticommunist and anti-migrant rhetoric in attempts to keep the base in near-constant frenzy. In this they are very similar to Salvini’s La Lega and Victor Orban’s Fidesz. In fact, the three parties could be seen as natural allies in their Eurosceptic narrative.

This created a three-fold problem for the SDS.

First, just as any self-respecting nativist party the SDS claims sole ownership of “patriotism”. They are “patriots” while everyone else is a globalist, a Soros mercenary, a communist or whatever the fuck the insult-generator comes up with that day.

But as such, they would, by definition, have to be the ones to lead the charge against Salvini and Tajani. Awkward.

Secondly, had they done that, they would have implicitly acknowledged the overall positive role of Tito’s partisan army during the war and the role of the communist leadership of Slovenia and Yugoslavia in securing political, territorial and economic gains in the aftermath of WWII.

This is unfathomable for a party which (again, just like Salvini) regularly engages in historic revisionism, conspiracy theories and rabid anticommunism. Which is why SDS leadership was bewildered by Salvini’s broadside and attempted to whatabout its way out of the conundrum. Some of them still do.

On a related note: it appears that in observing the twists and turns of the SDS and their ilk in this case, we have seen first-hand how Slovenian collaboration with Mussollini’s Fascist regime came to be in WWII. To put is simply, in the hatred of all things left/liberal, the far-right self-professed patriots ended up agreeing with foreign leaders who wished them and their people ill. It was all quite constructive.

Thirdly, and most importantly, having found itself between a rock (territorial aspirations) and a hard place (recognition of positive role of Slovenian communists in securing Primorska and Istra), the SDS presented the competition with an opening that everyone rushed to fill. Especially Lojze Peterle of NSi who – as both readers will remember from this post – is having a bit of a worry with regard to securing his fourth term as MEP.

Never be wide open

Now, the NSi is often times seen as the political wing of the Roman Catholic Church in Slovenia. This is not an entirely accurate description, but there is a huge amount of overlap between the two, including an across the board rejection of communism and social liberalism.

But.

While the Roman Catholic Church was a facilitator of collaboration with the fascist during WWII and a hardline anti-communist force with a direct line to the Slovenian interwar conservative leadership, this was not the case in the Primorska region and Istria which were annexed to Italy after World War I.

There the Fascist regime was executing a massive “re-education” programme, attempting to eradicate Slovenian language and culture and to Italianise the population en masse by means of forced education, imprisonment, torture and executions. Some would even go so far as to say that the fascists were engaging in ethnic cleansing, the very thing that Salvini baselessly accused Slovenian post-war communist leadership of doing to Italians in Primorska region.

The fascists failed in their endeavour, not in the least because Slovenians soon discovered that patriotism and indeed survival trumped political affiliation and as such the Roman Catholic Church in Primorska (specifically, Slovenian priests) became one of the centres of resistance against the fascists way before WWII even broke out.

This factoid solved whatever dilemma Lojze Peterle might have had with regard to Tajani’s utterances and when the latter delivered his non-apology on Monday Peterle went straight for the jugular and flat out rejected the statement. No ifs, not buts.

This sent shockwaves through the Slovenian EPP delegation and soon enough other people piled on. Specifically, Franc Bogovič of SLS, who at first thanked Tajani for the “apology”, told him to tone it down asked everyone to move on. But after Peterle dropped the bombshell Bogovič, too, discovered that he was, in fact, enraged to hell and back and joined in.

Weber’s woes

With Croatian EPP members echoing the sentiment, it was becoming increasingly clear that SDS would either be forced into an awkward walkback or risk ceding and important set of planks in their election platform to the NSi and nativist competition outside the European parliament. Things were starting to heat up inside the EPP to the point where the group parliamentary leader and Spitzenkandidat in the upcoming EU elections Manfred Weber had to step in and organise a sitdown with the ten Slovenian and Croatian EPP MEPs and Tajani to defuse the situation at least temporarily.

The result was a joint letter by the ten MEPs, stating in no unclear terms that no relativization on Fascism is acceptable and they expect Tajani to fully retract the statement and apologize unconditionally. But the meeting wasn’t a complete failure for Tajani, apparently, as the letter did allude to crimes of communist regime as well.

Weber might have prevented yet another split within the EPP, but it all may have been too little too late for the SDS as enough digital content deflecting and defending Tajani was created in the first 48  hours after the “incident” that The Party will probably be beaten on the head with it until May 26, when Slovenia will hold the EU vote.

Add to that that there is a substantial number of SDS supporters who insist that Tajani did nothing improper and suddenly things look a lot less sexy for the largest Slovenian EPP member.

Petitions, trolling and popcorn

On the other side of the spectrum, the Social Democrats are milking this for all that it is worth. Tanja Fajon was, as per usual, quick on her feet in her initial response and stuck to the same talking points as Slovenian leadership. But yesterday the SD took it up a notch and demanded Tajani step down from his post.

But knowing full well a formal motion for Tajani’s dismissal would get nowhere, they created an “international online petition” demanding his removal from office. The petition of course has no actual effect and is not part of any formal EP procedure, but it provides a welcome shouting box for a party that is largely bereft of ideas and needs to keep throwing red meat to its base, as well. The treasure trove of personal data on their likely supporters they will have gained with this petition is obviously a plus.

That said, SD probably went overboard in banging this particular drum. Namely, the call to sign the petition was tweeted by SD leader Dejan Židan who just happens to be Speaker of Slovenian parliament. And it seems quite gauche for a parliament chief of a nation state to say call on the EP boss (technically, his equal) to quit his post.

Agreed, Židan tweeted this as party leader and not as Speaker, but this is precisely the same distinction Tajani was trying to invoke in defending his remarks but was forcefully rebuffed. Thus, Slovenia’s second-most senior politician would be advised to take it down a notch and let people who will actually run for European positions to take the lead.

And as for Slovenian ALDE parties, this whose affair will provide a welcome distraction after negotiations between LMŠ, SMC and SAB on forming a common ticked failed and now especially SMC and SAB will be looking for a way not to get trounced at the polls.

Incidentally, with ALDE parties fucking it all up again, the worth of the Slovenian Commissioner Violeta Bulc, skyrocketed.

Namely, while Fajon, Vajgl and Peterle were indignant over Tajani’s statement, Bulc trolled him on Twitter and he swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker, in the end engaging exchanging insults with a member of the public. It was a about as unpresidential as it gets.

Thus is to be assumed that both LMŠ and SMC/SAB (now rumoured to be forming a joint bid) will be interested in having Bulc on their ticket, allowing the Commissioner for Transport (ironically, the portfolio Antonio Tajani held during the first Barroso Commission), to more or less dictate the terms of engagement. At least in the short term.

In a matter of days, the campaign for European elections in Muddy Hollows went from non-existent to full-blown and now has the potential to rearrange the EU part of the country’s political landscape.

Hope y’all have enough popcorn.

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pengovsky

Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

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