The Euro­pean Com­mis­sioner for Mo­bil­ity and Trans­port, Vi­o­leta Bulc, is any­thing but an av­er­age Euro­pean politi­cian. 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.

"Par­tic­u­larly dur­ing chal­leng­ing po­lit­i­cal times, it is im­por­tant to fos­ter co­op­er­a­tion and de­velop pre­dictable le­gal frame­works for the trans­port re­la­tions be­tween the Euro­pean Union and the GCC coun­tries." VI­O­LETA BULC Euro­pean Com­mis­sioner Mo­bil­ity and Trans­port

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 the same as Qatar's, this jewel is one of the most pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tions in Cen­tral Europe.

From pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball player to Euro­pean Com­mis­sioner

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 the 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 firms.

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 the Yu­goslav na­tional team and played pro­fes­sion­ally for six years. Ad­di­tion­ally, she holds a black belt in taek­wondo, and for some time even taught in a mar­tial arts school. 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 it was to en­ter the “big pol­i­tics” as an out­sider and face the chal­lenges her cur­rent po­si­tion holds?

“I en­tered 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 of the Brussels Euro­crats con­sid­er­ing she was seen as a rel­a­tively un­known politi­cian who en­tered 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, the 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 telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, com­puter science to eco sys­tems and a sys­tem­atic way of think­ing – I use all of this in my job,” Bulc ex­plains.

Ob­serve and re­spect

Many won­dered whether 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, Mrs 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. Mr Juncker is an ex­tra­or­di­nary politi­cian; I am amazed by his in-depth knowl­edge of pol­i­tics. Meet­ing with China's Prime Min­is­ter, Mr 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.”

Gen­der equal­ity

Vi­o­leta Bulc holds a po­si­tion which makes her one of the most in­flu­en­tial fe­male of­fi­cials in the EU. Has the 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

"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."

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 gen­derequal­ity per­spec­tive into all EU ac­tiv­i­ties and sec­tors. But trans­port is not a gen­der­bal­anced 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.”

EU- Gulf re­la­tions

In­deed, the world we are liv­ing in is rapidly chang­ing. Nowa­days, the Euro­pean Union is fac­ing some of the hard­est chal­lenges since its foun­da­tion. The lat­est course of events fol­low­ing Brexit and the rise of the pop­ulist move­ments all across the con­ti­nent have 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 is­sue from her field of ex­per­tise when say­ing that trans­port is a 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. 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.

Avi­a­tion di­a­logue

This is es­pe­cially true for the 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 ne­go­ti­a­tions on EU-level avi­a­tion agree­ments with Qatar and the United Arab Emi­rates, 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

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