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site.btaUPDATED Slovenian President Natasa Pirc Musar on Schengen, Her Bulgarian Friends and Being a Woman President

Slovenian President Natasa Pirc Musar on Schengen, Her Bulgarian Friends and Being a Woman President
Slovenian President Natasa Pirc Musar on Schengen, Her Bulgarian Friends and Being a Woman President
Slovenian President Natasa Pirc Musar upon her election (BTA Photo)

Slovenia supports Bulgaria's full entry into the Schengen area, and the current decision on admission only by air and water is a temporary compromise, Slovenian President Natasa Pirc Musar said in a written interview with BTA on the eve of her official visit to Bulgaria on February 26-28. In her words, the decision is not ideal, but it will promote trade and tourism.

"Being the president today, it pains me deeply to see Schengen dying, as several EU countries are reintroducing border controls, including Slovenia at the border with Croatia," Pirc Musar said.

The Slovenian head of state stressed that the Western Balkan countries are an integral part of Europe. There is no stability in Europe without stability in the Western Balkans and all EU member states should bear this in mind, she stressed.

Asked whether her country is considering introducing compulsory military service against the background of recently increased debates on the issue in the region, Pirc Musar replied that no such steps are envisaged for the time being.

The Slovenian head of State has a largely representative function. She is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and nominates some of the most senior civil servants, including the governor of the central bank and constitutional judges. However, most of the President's nominations must be confirmed by Parliament.

Pirc Musar became the first female president in Slovenian history after the 2022 elections. She is a former TV journalist, a long-time lawyer in media law and human rights. Pirc Musar has also headed the data protection office in Slovenia. She has friends and cooperation in the field of data protection with Bulgaria.

Following is the full interview:

How do you assess Slovenian-Bulgarian relations? What are your expectations regarding your visit to Bulgaria? 

Relations between the two countries are good, but I would like to see a further strengthening of economic cooperation in particular. That is why such visits are useful.

Do you have any personal connection with Bulgaria - friends, or events that connect you with our country?

I have two friends in Bulgaria, Nikolina Dimitrova and Georgi Kourtev. Both were, as I was at that time, news presenters at National TV. We studied media topics for two semesters together in Manchester, UK at Salford University in 1996 through Phare – Tacis EU Programme. We still keep in touch and I am pleased that both of them are still successful. Nikolina is a CEO of Bloomberg TV Bulgaria and Georgi, who recently visited me in Slovenia, a business man. I will never forget the visit in Sofia in 1997. At that time, they showed me the beauties of your country. And today I can say that your homeland has also progressed greatly since joining the EU. I am truly happy about this progress. I also have very fond memories of collaborating with Gergana Jouleva and Alexander Kashumov, with whom we co-created the image of Europe in the field of access to public information. Both have done a lot for Bulgaria and Europe in this area and are still active in this for democracy extremely important legal field today. 

As of March 2024, Bulgaria joins the Schengen area for maritime and air travel, but talks on lifting controls at land borders will continue. What is your opinion on that kind of approach of accepting members in the free travel zone? You were involved in the accession process as an advisor. Could you share with us when this was and what was your role back then?

From 2004 to 2014, when I was Slovenian Information Commissioner, I was appointed as the leading expert for Switzerland's entry into the Schengen area in the field of personal data protection. I also served as an advisor to the Romanian government for this process. Therefore, I am very familiar with the strict conditions for EU member states to enter the Schengen area. 

Slovenia has consistently supported the full entry of Bulgaria and Romania into Schengen area ever since the first positive assessments by the European Commission in 2011. Considering that entry requires the consensus of all countries already in the Schengen area, I see the existing solution as a necessary and temporary compromise. which also satisfied those countries that had specific reservations. Although this is not an ideal solution, I am sure that it will help to promote travel, trade and tourism.

However, being the president today, it pains me deeply to see Schengen dying, as several EU countries are reintroducing border controls, including Slovenia at the border with Croatia. 

Slovenia has expressed our frustration with internal checks at the Schengen border several times already. We have seen no real justifications for the internal checks at the Austrian-Slovenian border. We have talked about the real meaning of Schengen – free flow of people – within the EU and with our neighbours and partners. 

Slovenia has seen what free borders meant for people, we have so many people who are migrating daily, living in Slovenia and working in Italy or vice versa and see checks as an obstacle to the daily life, daily migration, obstacle to the Schengen idea itself. 

Slovenia remains a strong supporter of the Schengen area and the right to freedom of movement. I believe we need to go back to a regime without internal border control as soon as possible. But, at the same time, we should make sure that the EU’s external borders are better protected. We should use Frontex's support in protecting the EU's external borders. Frontex's assistance does not reflect a host country's weakness, but rather a serious commitment to effective work, a European way of tackling challenges and solidarity between Member States. 

The parties in the Bulgarian parliament are divided on the upcoming euro changeover in Bulgaria. Having in mind the Slovenian experience, do you think Bulgarians should have any doubts/fears on this matter?

When I was growing up, our currency was the Yugoslav dinar, after independence we had tolars and then we switched to Euros. Euro is one of the great achievements of the European union. Slovenia joined the European Union (EU) in May 2004, and in January 2007 the country adopted the Euro as legal tender as national currency.

Slovenia was the only country after the big enlargement that joined the Eurozone just before the financial crisis. We, too, had a managed floating exchange rate. By quickly adopting the Euro, we wanted to show our commitment to the European project, to the EU, to European integration. 

Euro is one of the symbols of the European integration.  There were discussions and fear that Euro will bring higher prices, but skepticism faded quickly. Slovenians travel a lot and have experienced the value of having one currency in the Eurozone rather quickly. Adopting the euro was an important step for Slovenia, since tourism plays a big role in our economy as well. 

Between Slovenia and Bulgaria, we have the countries from the so-called Western Balkans - European countries that are not part of the EU. In this regard, what is the role of Slovenia for the European integration of the region?

Slovenia has always been a staunch supporter and has always worked hard to give the Western Balkans a European perspective, including membership of the European Union. In my opinion, there is no Europe without the Western Balkans as an integral part of it. In Slovenia we have stated several times at all levels that the countries of the Western Balkans are rightly called upon to work hard to fulfil formal conditions to receive EU membership, but that the EU institutions and Member States of the European Union should also work hard and help the candidate states to fulfil their aspirations. 

This is the message that is regularly voiced by the leaders in the Brdo-Brijuni process as well. These countries need help and encouragement. I know very well the ifs and buts of the integration process, also in relations between the member states and their neighbouring candidate countries if you will. Slovenia has experienced them as well. But the truth is: there is no stability of Europe without stability in the Western Balkans and all EU member states must keep this big picture in mind.

Serbia is considering reintroducing compulsory military service which sparked similar debates in other countries in the region.  As a commander-in-chief, what kind of military service you think Slovenia needs in the current geopolitical situation?

Slovenia abolished compulsory military service about 20 years ago due to various reasons, including demographic changes, health status and decreasing interest among youth, tasks associated with NATO accession, such as international operations, and interoperability with other allies, which were in favour of professional armed forces.

Reintroducing military conscription would require extensive changes, such as adaptation and reorganization of armed forces, significant financial investment in infrastructure and facilities, and above all support from citizens. Of course, a broad reflection and consensus are necessary before such a step.

Shortage of personnel is a challenge faced by many armies, including the Slovenian Armed Forces. However, I am glad that various measures of Defence Ministry implemented during last two years have finally succeeded in employing more soldiers last year than in previous years. I hope that this trend will continue.

Slovenia is well aware of current security challenges. At this point we remain committed to a professional army that effectively carries out its task. However, we have initiated the modernization of key strategic defence documents, such as the long-term development program of the Slovenian Armed Forces, new defence strategy, military strategy, and civil defence strategy. The guidelines included provide opportunity for discussion on the wide spectrum of defence capabilities, including possible involvement of citizens in defence efforts, type of military service and the establishment of broader resilience of the state and society. In any case I support public, political and expert considerations on such important issues.

Now, more than a year after you became Slovenia’s first-ever female president, what do you think, does gender matter for this “job”? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a female head of state? Furthermore - nonpartisan female head of state?   

I'm happy with my first year, I've learned a lot and we've done a lot of good things. For example, the election of Slovenia as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, where I was very involved and met with more than 40 heads of state and prime ministers in the first six months of my mandate. I am a perfectionist by nature, so of course I see a lot of room for progress. 

The impression is that it is really more difficult if you are non-party, independent. You don't have a party behind you to support you, to defend you as your own - but on the other hand you are free and you don't owe anyone anything. You are free to make policies of action that are purely in the interests of the people, the citizens. But it is precisely because of this independence that, in my first year, I was attacked politically from the right and the left. It was also because I did not choose a comfort zone to keep quiet. This is, of course, the easiest way to not offend anyone. But I said at the beginning of my mandate that I would not do that. When my team and I felt it was necessary to speak up, to make a move, I did it. In the vast majority of cases, it was well received. Being a woman in politics does not make life easier. Harsh comments about my clothes, weight …  are part of my daily life. Unfortunately, it is not right, therefore I speak about gender equity a lot and will continue to do so. The gender issue will never get off the table. 

As a lawyer you defended Melania Trump’s interests in her native Slovenia. What kind of experience was that for you? Are you still in touch? 

You have to understand here that I cannot talk publicly about the experience itself. All I can say is that Mrs Melania Trump and I congratulate each other on birthdays, in Slovenian. The last time we were in contact was on the occasion of the death of her mother, whom I also met in person, and of course I expressed my sincere condolences.

Recently you have started your own podcast series and became national vice-champion in bowling. What is the secret of your time management? Do you still ride your bike? What do you miss most of your life before your presidential stint?

I don't have a specific recipe. I told my team at the beginning of my mandate that I want to remain Nataša above all. Because if I am Nataša, I will be a good President. 

So, I talk to people who know more than I do on the podcast to feed my passion for journalism, which is still burning inside me. I bowl, go to singing rehearsals and ride my motorbike. All this gives me the extra energy I need to do a better job as President of the Republic of Slovenia. 

/RY/

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By 11:00 on 25.04.2024 Today`s news

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