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Patricija Šulin in the role of MEP in 2019 in her last interview for Demokracija: “Slovenia has not taken full advantage of membership in the European family, so we still have a lot of work to do!”

By: Vida Kocjan, C. R.

With the untimely death of former MEP and prominent SDS member Patricija Šulin, we found her last interview for Demokracija, namely from May 2019, when Šulin was already saying goodbye to the position of MEP. In the previous convocation of the European Parliament, she was a member and vice-chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Budgets, an alternate member of the Committee on Budgetary Control and the Committee on Transport and Tourism.

Patricija Šulin comes from Trnovo pri Gorici. She is a university graduate work organiser. After graduating from the Faculty of Organisational Sciences in Kranj, she gained her internship and her first work experience at Meblo in Nova Gorica in the human resources department, and then for some time she was an independent entrepreneur with a trade activity. After the birth of her son, she was employed by the company Pigal, and since 1997 she has been employed by the Ministry of Finance, the Tax Office Nova Gorica and the Tax Office in Ljubljana in the Department of Tax Inspection and Investigations, where she worked as a senior tax officer inspector.

She was also very active in the SDS party at both the state and local levels. In February 2012, she became a deputy member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia in the second Janša government. She served on the Finance and Monetary Policy Committee, the Economy Committee and the Health Committee.

In the European elections in May 2014, she was elected an MEP on the SDS list. In the expiring convocation of the European Parliament, she was a member and vice-chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Budgets and an alternate member of the Committee on Budgetary Control and the Committee on Transport and Tourism.

Demokracija: 15 years have passed since Slovenia’s accession to full membership of the European Union on May 1st. How do you assess these years, it was 15 years of great opportunities and possibilities for Slovenia, did Slovenia breathe freely again during that time?

Šulin: Slovenia’s accession to the European Union, for which almost 90 percent of voters voted in a referendum in March 2003, is certainly the most important decision of the Slovenian nation after the plebiscite for independent Slovenia on December 23rd, 1990. It is reaffirmed every day that membership of the European Union, which brings together 28 countries and more than 500 million people and provides us with peace and stability, is by far the best environment for citizens who live better than ever at this time. Slovenia has gained a lot with its membership in the European Union. We have introduced a common European currency, the euro, entered the Schengen area and are enjoying all the benefits of an area without internal borders, where the free movement of people, goods, services and capital is possible. However, how well an individual Member State can take full advantage of the European Union depends to a large extent on the state itself. Certainly, Slovenia has not taken full advantage of all the benefits that membership in the European family brings, so we still have a lot of work to do. Slovenia’s presidency of the EU Council in the first half of 2008 under the first government of Janez Janša, when our country was the first among the new members to take over the helm of the EU, showed that we have the knowledge and experience.

Demokracija: You assessed that Slovenia benefits greatly from Europe. Can you explain this in more detail? Namely, some would rather strengthen Balkan ties.

Šulin: Slovenia is an equal member state in the European Union, which is equally represented in the European Commission, the European Parliament and regularly attends meetings of the European Council and the EU Council. Slovenian is also one of the official languages in the European Union. Slovenia has been a net recipient since joining the European Union, which means that it receives more money from the budget than it pays into it. Slovenia thus received 9,184 million euros from the EU budget from 2000 to 2017, which also includes pre-accession funds, and paid in 5,107 million euros. Slovenia has access to funds from various funds; from funds for balanced development in different regions of the EU, for employment, for financing transport and environmental projects in countries, for agriculture and so on, to funds for companies to adapt to globalisation and to help countries in the event of major natural disasters. I would like to give one concrete example of what this means for Slovenia. Already at the beginning of my mandate, as rapporteur for the European Parliament, I led the procedure in which Slovenia received 18.4 million euros from the Solidarity Fund for the repair of damage caused by glazed frost. In Slovenia, at the beginning of 2014, glazed frost damaged almost half of the forests, and every fourth household was left without electricity due to damage to the electricity network. As a rapporteur of the European Parliament, I did my best to ensure that Slovenia’s application for financial assistance in repairing the damage caused by glazed frost was quickly resolved. Slovenia thus received funds in 2015.

Demokracija: Thinking that we have been a full-fledged EU Member State for so many years raises the question of drawing European funds. This is extremely bad in the current financial perspective, around a fifth or, according to the latest data, a quarter of the agreed amount, and the perspective is coming to an end. What is the reason for this? Is the Brussels bureaucracy to blame or is it the fault of the last Slovenian governments?

Šulin: In the European Union, we are somehow already accustomed that governments often blame Brussels and the Brussels bureaucracy for their own failures and inability to govern. The situation is similar with regard to drawing European funds. It is true that there is still a lot of room for improvement at the level of the European Union, but this is not a reason for poor absorption of European funds in Slovenia, which spent only 20 percent of European money in the current financial perspective 2014-2020. Throughout my term of office, I have been drawing attention to the poor absorption of European funds, and in my speeches I have repeatedly called on both the previous and the current Slovenian government to take a more ambitious approach. Some time ago, a member of the European Court of Auditors, Samo Jereb, pointed out the poor absorption of European funds, emphasising that Slovenia did not spend any funds from the European Structural and Investment Funds in 2017. The blame for this lies largely with the Slovenian governments.

Demokracija: Can we still catch the train when drawing European money and how?

Šulin: I am afraid that the Slovenian government will not be able to cope with this and that it will not be able to spend all the funds, as it has stalled a lot in drawing the funds. Let me remind you that we were in a similar situation in the previous financial perspective, but the second government of Janez Janša, which took office in early 2012, greatly accelerated the absorption of European funds from the then financial perspective, so that Slovenia took full advantage of it. We need a government that has the knowledge, experience and vision, and the absorption of European funds will be more successful.

Demokracija: Brussels also has other means at its disposal. For example, Croatians will build a bridge to Peljašac, mostly with European funds, and expect as much as 85% support. Do you know why Slovenia could not obtain money for larger infrastructure projects, such as the 3rd development axis?

Šulin: The Slovenian governments are certainly to blame for this. I keep repeating that Brussels will not give us anything if the state does not prepare projects and documentation that meet the tender conditions, and of course does not ask for funds. Unless the government is more active, ambitious and efficient, the resources available for different areas will not help it at all.

Demokracija: You have been a very active Member of the European Parliament during your expiring term. What did you pay the most attention to?

Šulin: My activities were particularly related to European funds. I was Vice-Chair of the Committee on Budgets for two and a half years, and as a member of the European Parliament delegation I took part in the conciliation procedure three times, thus in intensive negotiations with representatives of the Commission and the Member States for the adoption of the EU annual budget. In these negotiations, we went from item to item, from a few million to several hundred million amounts, having to bridge not only the differences between parliament and other institutions, but also between political groups in parliament. In these negotiations, I was particularly committed to having sufficient resources in the right (key) areas, in areas important for our future, such as research, innovation, education, youth employment, cohesion and security. I am glad we made it. Returning to European funding, I would like to emphasise that, as rapporteur for the European People’s Party in the Committee on Budgetary Control, I have prepared an opinion on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund. The regulation sets out the conditions and manner in which countries receive one-off assistance in the event of major redundancies. The new regulation reduces the minimum number of people who have become unemployed due to restructuring, as a condition for obtaining funds, which is good for smaller countries such as Slovenia. Unfortunately, Slovenia applied for financial assistance from the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund only once, in 2010, when Mura laid off 2,554 redundancies.

Demokracija: You have also called for a more effective containment of fraud in the EU. How much of this is there and how successful have you been at it?

Šulin: Fraud, corruption and other illegal activities not only bring huge losses to state budgets and, consequently, to the EU budget, but also undermine people’s confidence in the rule of law. In the European Union, we lose around 180 billion euros every year due to corruption, of which in Slovenia, according to some estimates, 3.5 billion euros. We are facing fraud in the field of value added tax, corruption in healthcare, public procurement and the banking sector. In the EU, we have taken some important steps in the fight against fraud. At EU level, an anti-fraud programme is being set up to support the protection of the EU’s financial interests and mutual administrative assistance between customs authorities. The European Commission has also proposed an amendment to the regulation on investigations conducted by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) in order to increase the efficiency of OLAF and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office and to adjust cooperation between them. The European Public Prosecutor’s Office and OLAF must not be in a competitive relationship, but must act in a complementary manner and complement each other in their work in such a way that the fight against fraud is more effective and that investigations are completed more quickly. However, I would like to point out that the majority of measures are still in the Member States, which must have zero tolerance for fraud and corruption. If we do not act today, the consequences for future development could be catastrophic.

Demokracija: During this term of office, have you ever met with the two Prime Ministers of Slovenia, Miro Cerar and Marjan Šarec? Did they invite you for a conversation, ask for help, look for suggestions and the like, or did they exclude you and your colleagues from it?

Šulin: During this term, I met with Miro Cerar and Marjan Šarec, as well as with some ministers. However, I believe that this has not been enough in five years and that there should be even more talks and finding common solutions for a better tomorrow.

Demokracija: How did the participation of Slovenian MEPs go? You are known to belong to different political options; were these differences shown in your collaboration?

Šulin: The participation of Slovenian MEPs was exemplary. We were united on some topics, but not on others, which is normal, since we come from different political groups. For example, we were united in the successful initiative to declare May 20th World Bee Day, and we later proposed the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association for the European Citizens’ Award. Among other things, Slovenian MEPs also supported my question to the European Commission, when in early February I reminded it of the non-use of the Slovenian language in the exchange of information on traffic offenses between countries. Namely, quite a few Slovenes have recently received notifications about offenses committed in Italy and Austria, which were in Italian or in German. In its reply, the European Commission confirmed that the notifications should be in Slovene and that the obligation to send notifications in the language of the country of registration applies to authorities at all levels – from local, regional to federal.

Demokracija: Undoubtedly, there were different votes. Where were the biggest differences and how much did they relate to Slovenia?

Šulin: Certainly, the biggest differences were in the issues of migration and security, where MEPs from the ranks of the Slovenian Democratic Party advocated better protection of external borders and more resources for security from the very beginning of the migrant crisis. We also had different views on trade agreements, such as TTIP and Ceta. Our opinions also differed on topics that we did not vote on in the European Parliament, such as the issue of teran protection or the different assessment of the arbitration award between Slovenia and Croatia.

Demokracija: This year’s elections will be a turning point for both Europe and Slovenia. Do you agree with this and why is it so?

Šulin: The current mandate has shown how vulnerable the European Union can be. After all eyes were fixed at the beginning of the mandate on mitigating the effects of the economic and financial crisis, we were soon hit by mass illegal migration, which showed how important the unity and effectiveness of the European Union is in dealing with it. We were then confronted with more terrorist attacks, and the final touch was the decision of the citizens of the United Kingdom in a referendum to leave the European Union, which was a big blow to everyone. All these events have once again shown how important the European Union is and that it is up to all of us how we will live in the future. That is why these elections are very important for both Slovenia and Europe, to show that we care what kind of EU we and our descendants will live in. That is why we must say resolute not to those parties and politicians who want the disintegration of the European Union.

Demokracija: You come from Littoral region, which, like some other border areas, is under a major impact of migrant issues. What is your position on the regulation of this problem, how can Slovenia curb illegal crossings of migrants?

Šulin: My position on regulating the problem of illegal migrant crossings is very clear. I am opposed to illegal migration and I am in favour of more effective protection of the external borders, as the security of our citizens must come first. Already in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants crossed Slovenia and barely a dozen fingerprints were taken, I warned against non-implementation of the Schengen regulations. Namely, the then government very irresponsibly let people into the country on a daily basis without any control.

Demokracija: How do you assess the border cooperation between Slovenia and Italy in all areas, including from the EU’s point of view?

Šulin: During this term, I met with the Slovene minority in Italy as well as with representatives of the European Association for Territorial Cooperation of the municipalities of Gorica, Nova Gorica and Šempeter-Vrtojba, which was established to facilitate cross-border cooperation between Italy and Slovenia. In this light, I also advocated the revitalisation of the Gorica-Nova Gorica-Šempeter-Vrtojba railway junction. That the mentioned railway connection is important for the transport of persons and goods and the development of tourism was also confirmed by the former chairman of the Committee on Transport and Tourism in the European Parliament, of which I was an alternate member. He ranked the Gorica-Nova Gorica railway connection among the fifteen main missing cross-border railway connections in Europe. I also support the initiative to establish the first European Special Economic Zone in the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation of all three municipalities, which will attract additional investment and increase employment and economic development. Of course, there are also some open issues between the two countries. Among other things, I addressed a question to the European Commission regarding the difficult use of frequencies for Slovenian radio stations in the Littoral region, because Italy uses radio frequency spectrum in violation of the rules. Namely, Italy has been using the radio frequency spectrum for several years, contrary to international agreements and the provisions of the International Telecommunication Union. The Commissioner’s reply was that the Commission was actively monitoring the issue of harmful interference and that the elimination of harmful cross-border interference was urgent.

Demokracija: You are extremely active in the pre-election campaign, you move a lot among citizens not only in Littoral region and the Coast, but also in Slovenia. In Posavje, for example, they are very attached to you. How do you assess the state of mind in the country in general and in relation to the EU in particular?

Šulin: I love going among people, listening to their problems and answering their questions. Throughout the entire term of office as well as in the pre-election campaign, I strive to bring the European Union as close as possible to the citizens and present all the advantages that Slovenia has as a member of the European family. During my term of office, I had about 50 round tables throughout Slovenia, and I also enabled over 30 groups from Slovenia to visit the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg. I estimate that voters are aware of the importance of Slovenia’s membership in the European Union, but they do not know enough about the functioning of the EU. We still have a lot of work to do in the field of raising the awareness of citizens.

Demokracija: The problem with the Slovenian elections is low voter turnout. This is particularly low in the European elections. Why is this so and how can we change this?

Šulin: We cannot boast of voter turnout in the European elections in Slovenia, as in 2014 it was among the lowest in the Member States, only 24.55%. People feel that Brussels is too far away, and the media often report only in a negative context in relation to the European Union. Europe faces many challenges – from migration, an aging population to youth unemployment. That is why I invite citizens to take part in the elections and take part in the democratic process. We all need to be co-deciding what kind of Europe we want to live in.

Demokracija: What will you pay the most attention to in the new term, if you are elected?

Šulin: If I become a member of the Committee on Budgets again, I will continue my efforts in the new term of office to negotiate sufficient resources in areas that are important for our future. We also need a more flexible budget with a large enough special reserve for a faster and more effective EU response in the event of sudden events. Therefore, in the negotiations on the new financial framework, in the light of past experience and the current situation, I advocate the provision of a special section for defence and security.

Demokracija: What message do you want to give to readers?

Šulin: I invite the readers of Demokracija to take part in the elections in as many numbers as possible on Sunday, May 26th, and to circle the joint list of the Slovene Democratic Party and the Slovene People’s Party, which they can find under number 9. To vote means to decide, and not to allow others to decide for you. However, if they think that I have justified their trust, I invite them to circle the number 3 in front of my name on the joint list of SDS and SLS.

Editorial note: The interview was conducted shortly before the European Parliament elections on May 26th, 2019.

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