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Approach From The Smart Side

Serbia, which has the largest economy in the region, would by definition be the best candidate to reap the benefits of the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, but it needs to reform faster. And Austria would strongly support such an approach.

As a result of the pandemic, this year’s celebrating of Austrian National Day in Serbia will be turned into an audio-visual 3D event that was developed through the hackathon organised with students of the Laboratory for Interactive Arts at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade. It is inspired by this year’s 25th anniversary of Austria’s membership in the EU and the music of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, the anthem of the European Union.

Apart from being prompted by health and safety issues, the way this event is being organised shows the strength of innovation, creativity and collaboration, but also ideas that are larger than life. It might also symbolically represent the way Austrian-Serbian bilateral cooperation could be shaped in the future. The underlining topic is the EU integration process, which – in the case of Serbia – needs to be reinvigorated. Reforms leading to the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, the fight against corruption, media freedom and the functioning of independent institutions and public administration need to be addressed with new strength and more faith. For EU member states that have been strong promoters of the enlargement process, like Austria, this would provide a clear signal to proceed with efforts to advance the topic of the future EU membership of the countries of the Western Balkans, including Serbia, in a more convincing manner.

The long-awaited new Serbian government, even with a shortened mandate, already faces a long ‘to do’ list. Rule of law, judicial independence, the fight against corruption, media freedom and the functioning of independent institutions and public administration are among the key priorities.

At the level of the economies, the two countries are seeking to return to the heights of bilateral trade reached in 2019. While that certainly won’t be possible in 2020 cooperation might be returned to a desired level in 2021, when both countries should record robust growth. Given the developments already noticed in the previous year or two, when Austrian investors became interested in innovation capacities in Serbia, it is highly likely that some new players will enter the scene, and some projects, such as the one of the Centre for Bioengineering at the University of Kragujevac, will attract the interest of the Austrian Development Agency (ADA).

These sorts of projects and ideas are needed the most if Serbia wants to utilise the promise offered by the new EU-led effort in the Western Balkans.

Indeed, the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans is envisaged as a powerful instrument that would be able to spur long-term economic recovery, boost economic growth and support the socio-economic convergence of the region with the EU. These respectable sums – if spent in a smart way – could be a game-changer for the economies of the region.

The Investment plan has been conceived with the idea of rewarding successful, determined reform efforts by a countries’ “phasing in” to selected EU policies and programmes, even before achieving membership, which is why reforms are important.

Without them it would be highly unlikely that the countries will be able to absorb and implement financial support programmes. Serbia, which has the largest economy in the region, would by definition be the best candidate to attract these funds, but it first needs to reform its public administration.

Judged from the Austrian perspective, the Serbian economy has demonstrated a good performance in recent years, as a result of continuous government efforts leading to high fiscal discipline and macroeconomic stability. And this led in turn to increased investments and solid growth. Now the spirit of reform has to be restored. 

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