By Sasa Zuzmahowsky
The European Commissioner for Mobility and Transport, Violeta Bulc, is anything but an average European politician. In everything she does, she achieves extraordinary results, whether it is sports, spiritual growth, business or politics. She is certainly a true homo universalis. In an exclusive interview for Qatar Today, she reveals her views on current European challenges, GCC-EU relations and also her personal experience at the helm of Europe’s transport sector.
Violeta Bulc comes from a tiny but picturesque state of Slovenia, located in the middle of Europe, where the Alps meet the Mediterranean and the Pannonian Plain meets the Karst. With its size comparable to Kuwait and population almost as same as Qatar’s, this jewel is one of the most popular touristic destinations in Central Europe.
From professional basketball player to European Commissioner
“To me, EU is a structure which is still developing, but it offers solutions for global coexistence. It is difficult to manage, but it has the potential to ensure its fundamental principle: peace – over the last 66 years, we have been living in peace.”
She was born in 1964 in Novo Mesto, when Slovenia was still a part of Yugoslavia and studied computer science and informatics at the University of Ljubljana, the country’s capital city. Her passion for new technologies and IT research led her to US, where she received a Master’s degree in Information Technology from the Golden Gate University, San Francisco, California. She worked in Silicon Valley for four years at DHL Systems, Burlingame, California, before moving back to Slovenia in 1994, after it gained its independence. She became a successful manager at Slovenian Telecom, and shortly after founded several of her own successful telecoms firm.
But it was her colourful additional interests that caught the attention of local and European media. In her youth she was a top athlete. She was a Slovenian champion in javelin throw and later tried her hand at basketball. In no time she entered Yugoslav national team and played professionally for six years. Additionally, she holds a black belt in taekwondo, and for some time even taught in the school for martial arts. On top of this, her spiritual inquisitiveness has lead her into new age practices – she is a trained shaman who teaches fire-walking courses!
Considering her non-political but nevertheless impressive background as an entrepreneur, a professional sportswoman and a spiritual leader, many have wondered how difficult was to enter the “big politics” as an outsider and face the challenges her current position holds?
“I entered into politics in 2014,” she recalls. “First I was appointed Minister responsible for Development, Strategic Projects and Cohesion in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Miro Cerar, and only a month later I was already the EU Commissioner for Transport.” Although she was not the first pick for the Brussels’s Eurocrats considering she was seen as relatively unknown politician who entered the local Slovenian politics only a month earlier, she easily turned the sceptics.
“My job as European Commissioner is full of challenges but I truly love it. I’m a convinced European and I truly believe in the concept of the European Union. And when I believe in something, I fully engage in it. To me, EU is a structure which is still developing, but it offers solutions for global coexistence. It is difficult to manage, but it has the potential to ensure its fundamental principle: peace – over the last 66 years, we have been living in peace. Unfortunately, Europe is facing many challenges. My vision is to coexist and co-create. Transport serves as a basis for connecting people. Everything I have learned in my life – from telecommunication, computer science to eco systems and systematic way of thinking – I use all of this in my job,” Bulc explains.
Observe and respect
Many wondered if she can benefit from her “unconventional” life and past experiences in her current position when dealing with EU officials and foreign leaders and politicians. Bulc herself believes she can. “In my role as a Commissioner, I have had the opportunity to meet many politicians and influential leaders. My first meeting with the German Chancellor, Merkel, was very interesting. We met at the Automobile Exhibition in Frankfurt. On the one hand, she represents a powerful authority in her country, but on the other hand, she is a very simple lady when you interact with her. Juncker is an extraordinary politician; I am amazed by his in-depth knowledge of politics. Meeting with China’s Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, was also very interesting, in particular in the sense of China’s culture and philosophy as well as their approach to protocol and ceremonies.
“I was also able to experience our planet’s diversity when I visited the Gulf States which are ruled by monarchies and royal families. I observe people, their energies, how they treat people and their employees. But if you are respectful to them, they will be respectful to you as well, and this is where my hope for humanity lies. I am happy to say I was able to have constructive dialogues with every counterpart so far, and we were able to find solutions to our problems, maybe not all, but at least some.”
“According to European statistics only around 22 % of workers in the transport sector are women. This figure is well below the figure for the overall economy (around 46 %).”
Violeta Bulc holds a position which makes her one of the most influential female officials in the EU. Has a fact that she is a woman, brought her any difficulties in her professional life? “Thanks to my character, I have never experienced any obstacles in my career due to my gender. But, I am aware of the issues women face in their jobs, and that gender inequality continues to exist in our society. I am a strong supporter of gender quotas that would enable balance not only in male-dominated jobs, but also in sectors lacking male labour. Equality between women and men is one of the European Union’s founding values. It goes back to 1957 when the principle of equal pay for equal work became part of the Treaty of Rome. In its Strategic engagement for gender equality 2016-2019, the Commission stressed the need to integrate a gender-equality perspective into all EU activities and sectors. But transport is not a gender balanced sector.
“According to European statistics only around 22 % of workers in the transport sector are women. This figure is well below the figure for the overall economy (around 46 %). Even though women are generally well represented in human resources and administrative departments, their proportion is extremely low in more technical professions such as drivers (e.g. they account for only around 3% of rail drivers). So, the pool of women in the transport labour market needs to be used more efficiently and extensively.”
Indeed, the world we are living in is rapidly changing. Nowadays European Union is facing some of the hardest challenges since its foundation. Latest course of events following Brexit and rise of the populist movements all across the continent has raised many questions regarding the future of the EU, which at the moment does not look very bright. Many therefore wonder whether the EU will be able to respond efficiently to new threats and also how these uncertainties may affect future relations with the GCC countries. Bulc approaches this pertinent issues from her field of expertise when saying that transport is key enabler of economic development and growth, job creation and connectivity and therefore of strategic importance for both Europe and the Gulf region.
“Particularly during challenging political times, it is important to foster cooperation and develop predictable legal frameworks for our transport relations.”
“Particularly during challenging political times, it is important to foster cooperation and develop predictable legal frameworks for our transport relations. In the transport area, the EU and the GCC have a lot in common, a lot to learn from each other and joint interest that both sides benefit from modern transport solutions. This is why we launched transport dialogues on the various transport modes which provide us with unique fora for discussion and cooperation on a wide range of issues. I am certain that we are on the right track and will continue our successful dialogue meetings as a solid basis for developing transport relations. They will – I am sure – yield further results and help build stronger partnerships between the EU and the GCC States,” she says.
“Our aim is to reach air transport agreements that are mutually beneficial and will create a solid basis and modern legal framework for the EU’s aviation partnerships with key partners.”
This is especially true for aviation sector, and Commissioner Bulc will be one of the key persons responsible for the ongoing open skies negotiations between the EU and the Gulf states. So far both sides had opposite views on this matter, but after the EU Transport Ministers authorized the European Commission to start negotiation on EU-level aviation agreements with Qatar and the UAE, the long lasting dispute over Open Skies and level of liberalization of the European market could finally move from a standstill. Bulc underlines that the EU’s Aviation Strategy recognises the huge potential of the EU-GCC aviation markets, and that the already established aviation relationships merit to be further developed into true aviation partnerships. In June 2016, the Commission was authorised to launch negotiations with Qatar and the UAE along with ASEAN and Turkey.
“Our aim is to reach air transport agreements that are mutually beneficial and will create a solid basis and modern legal framework for the EU’s aviation partnerships with key partners. We want to put in place conditions for more passengers, routes and consumer benefits. Talks already started with Qatar, ASEAN and Turkey and we look forward to launching negotiations with the UAE too. The EU-GCC Aviation Dialogue – the successful backbone of our aviation relations – will continue in parallel with a focus on technical cooperation.” While it is too early to speculate what the final deal will bring, it is certain that Qatari and UAE negotiators are going to face a tough but innovative negotiator in Commissioner Violeta Bulc.