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Erika Teoman Brenner, Commercial Counsellor, Embassy Of Austria

Getting Back On A Positive Track

The Austrian companies operating in Serbia have managed the pandemic and its economic fallout very well. Furthermore, we are also pleased to report that there are a few new companies from Austria that have expressed interest in investing in Serbia in the very near future. We are therefore convinced that Serbia will continue to be an attractive investment location

It cannot be said that we are over the pandemic, but good news is definitely on the horizon. In this interview, Erika Teoman Brenner, Commercial Counsellor at the Embassy of Austria in Belgrade, shares some reasons for optimism.

To summarise, she says that we can expect the upward trend in bilateral trade and investments to continued.

However, we mustn’t allow figures reflecting an upsurge to deceive us – further reforms to improve the business climate are still very much needed.

According to your poll conducted in late 2020, despite the reduced turnover among 40% of the surveyed companies that operate in Serbia, 30% still planned to invest even more over the next 12 months. Has that optimism been maintained throughout 2021?

It is too early to make a final assessment of the investment expansions this year, but based on the information we receive from our companies, we can confirm that the Austrian companies operating in Serbia have managed the pandemic and its economic fallout very well.

We are also pleased to report that there are a few new companies from Austria that have expressed interest in investing in Serbia in the very near future. To summarise, we are convinced that Serbia will continue to be an attractive investment location.

How have these developments impacted on bilateral trade and investments? What would be the final score for 2021?

Our bilateral trade fell by approximately 14% last year, due to the crisis. This year we are witnessing a swift recovery, regarding both exports and imports. In the first six months of this year, Austrian exports to Serbia increased by 22%, whereas imports from Serbia to Austria grew by 13%. The structure of our trade has remained quite unchanged over the years and reflects the strength of both countries’ economies. We can expect the positive trend to continue and surpass the record trade level of 2019 by the end of this year.

We believe that it is crucial to create a certain public awareness that work-based learning opens up many new opportunities for young people who acquire skills that are relevant on the labour market

Although Austrian companies cherish the opportunity to work in Serbia, many critical points have remained the same year after year, despite the overall improvements of preceding years achieved thanks to reforms, such as those related to corruption and red tape. How do you explain this and what can be done?

As you correctly mentioned, there has been quite an improvement in the business environment over recent years. We know that reforms take time and don’t come overnight, but our companies still think that there are a few areas where improvement is necessary. They feel that the rule of law should be strengthened, transparency increased and red tape reduced. It is important to note that all the reforms that we’ve touched on in previous years would not only increase the confidence of foreign businesses in the Serbian market, but, more significantly, would serve to benefit domestic companies.

The availability of qualified workers has been strongly attributed to the interest of Austrian investors for Serbia. Are the surveyed companies concerned about possible workforce shortages and how would they respond to that?

Even during the pandemic, our companies in Serbia were actively looking for qualified staff. There are definitely some professions, particularly in the technical field, where they are starting to feel a serious shortage. Individual companies only have a limited number of tools at their disposal to respond to this situation: firstly, they have to be an attractive employer and, secondly, they have to invest in the continuous qualification of their workforce.

On a more general level, we believe that it is crucial to create a certain public awareness that work-based learning opens up many new opportunities for young people who acquire skills that are relevant on the labour market.

What challenges have been faced by the implementation of the dual education system during the pandemic and how does this influence the activities of Austrian companies?

The companies certainly faced some challenges in light of the safety measures imposed due to COVID-19 and they had to readjust the organisation of their business. Moreover, the schools had to conduct their final exams for the 2019/2020 academic year under difficult circumstances, as they were officially closed. Although students neither went to school nor to companies for training, they were able to attend dual education classes on a daily basis via national television stations and other digital means.

But we are confident that the dual vocational training programmes will advance again, with great support of the companies involved.

Austrian companies operating in Serbia feel that the rule of law should be strengthened, transparency increased and red tape reduced… If adequate reforms are applied, that would serve to benefit both foreign and domestic businesses operating on the Serbian market

Now that COVID has, in a way, become a new normal for us, could you predict future trends in bilateral cooperation? Are we going to see more cooperation in digital transformation?

Although digital transformation started long before the emergence of COVID-19, the pandemic has definitely highlighted the increasingly important role of new technologies.

Not only have they allowed us to work remotely, but they also help us to build new connections and conduct business transactions. In order to make the most of the digital transformation in the context of recovery from the crisis, cooperation and new partnerships are more important than ever before.

How have these changes affected the activities of ADVANTAGE AUSTRIA aimed at fostering bilateral cooperation?

We are continuously re-evaluating our activities and services in light of the ongoing pandemic. We are relying more on digital meeting formats and try to encourage our companies to participate in the digital B2B events that we organise here in Serbia. While we definitely see encouraging results of our efforts to connect people online, we still think that there is a need to have a certain number of in-person meetings. Striking a good balance between all these different modes to promote bilateral cooperation is a challenge, but the more experience we gain, the better we will manage.

RECORD

After a strong rebound in 2021, we can expect to surpass the record trade level of 2019 by the end of this year

PARTNERSHIPS

In order to make the most of digital transformation in the context of recovery from the crisis, cooperation and new partnerships are more important than ever

EDUCATION

After challenges due to the pandemic, we are confident that the dual vocational training programmes will advance again with the great support of companies

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