Crises like the Coronavirus pandemic sometimes lead to the emergence of real heroes, and sometimes completely strip bare someone’s mutual relations. Judging by what we’ve had an opportunity to see so far, Covid-19 has certainly changed the way bilateral relations unfold, but not the essence of the cordial and increasingly fulfilled relations between the two countries
A significant jubilee was commemorated in Kragujevac in March last year, with senior officials of the two countries attending the 180th anniversary of the establishment of French-Serbian diplomatic relations. This year’s Days of Francophonie, which take place in March, were postponed for health security reasons. This is just one illustration of the way in which Covid-19 influences diplomatic relations between the two countries, if not their essence, then certainly their manifestation. As the French ambassador noted in his interview with CorD, at the time of the outbreak of the pandemic those relations were primarily fortified through the signs of the EU’s commitment to Serbia’s health needs.
With the normalisation of the situation, the focus returned to the key topics of European integration, and the dialogue between leaders in Belgrade and Pristina was accelerated immediately after the elections, as an important section on the road to the EU. Likewise, reform issues that Serbia has not yet completed, such as the rule of law and the establishing of full freedom of public expression, have made it onto the agenda.
In the period prior to the pandemic, Serbia and France intensified their bilateral cooperation, culminating in the arrival of the highest French officials in Serbia, and then the initialling of several large French investments in Serbia, which are progressing despite the quarantine.
At this moment, it is difficult to imagine when and to what extent it will be possible to restore that upward momentum observed in the development of economic relations between the two countries over the last few years. The trade exchange, for example, doubled between 2012 and 2019, but it’s difficult to predict how it will adapt to global turbulence and the dynamics of economic trends in France and Serbia.
Following the issue of humanitarian aid during the most pronounced health crisis, the agenda has again returned to open issues of European integration, while economic cooperation will be largely dictated by the situation in the world economy
However, a very positive sounding fact is that the dialogue between the Serbian government and business community has been preserved, and that the dialogue between the state and the economy came at the initiative of the French- Serbian Chamber of Commerce and resulted in a broad set of measures to preserve the economy. The focus is on preserving companies in the country, primarily small and medium-sized enterprises, which include many members of the French-Serbian Chamber of Commerce.
It is also too early to speculate whether, following the risks faced by companies with widely diversified production chains, foreign companies (including French ones) would prefer to choose markets that are closer to them and thus establish their production here. However, this does not diminish the relevance and importance of implementing measures to improve the business climate and especially digitalisation, which has saved many companies from major disruptions in operations.
There is no doubt that, for a while at least, talks and mutual meetings in the business world, and in cultural and scientific exchanges, will be largely supplemented by online content. For example, anyone who scans the pages of the French Institute in Serbia will be able to see that fans and admirers of the French language are offered numerous online language-based and cultural content, and that such a situation has actually created an opportunity for Serbian citizens to enjoy studying France’s cultural heritage or learning the French language online.