Although the establishment of the Chamber Investment Forum has shown itself to be a great move that’s yielding tangible results in terms of increases level of trade and business cooperation, support from the governments of the region remains insufficient. We see one possible solution to this in the establishment of ministries for regional cooperation within each government, just as Nordic countries have regional cooperation ministers
Our interlocutors are Marko Čadež Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Western Balkan Six Chamber Investment Forum (WB6 CIF) and President of the Chamber of Commerce & Industry Of Serbia and Safet Gërxhaliu Secretary General of the Western Balkan Six Chamber Investment Forum.
The chambers of the region initially established a dialogue on mutual cooperation. The Chamber Investment Forum (CIF) was actually created on the initiative of the chambers of commerce of Kosovo and Serbia. Thus it should come as no surprise that we selected for this parallel interview Marko Čadež, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Western Balkan Six Chamber Investment Forum and President of the Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Serbia, and Safet Gërxhaliu, Secretary General of the WB6 CIF and until recently president of the Chamber of Commerce of Kosovo.
Are you satisfied with what has been achieved to date and how much has the Chamber Investment Forum (CIF) proven itself to be a good mechanism for cooperation?
Marko Čadež: Since its founding, and subsequently through its activities, the Chamber Investment Forum has played a huge role, primarily in raising awareness of the need, importance and benefits of regional cooperation, and in contributing to regional integration becoming part of the economic and political agendas of the Western Balkans. It has gradually grown into an efficient chamber platform for dialogue between the private and public sectors aimed at eliminating obstacles to operating successfully and increasing the attractiveness of this region for both domestic companies and foreign investors; as a platform that contributes to building a common market, strengthening the capacities and competitiveness of our economy and networking our businesspeople for operations in the region and around the world.
Europe has recognised and acknowledged that we have become the strongest factor of cohesion in the region, while political leaders respect us – wherever we are in Brussels or the region, doors are open for us to meet with the highest officials. And, most importantly, that is appreciated by our businesspeople, who are increasingly able to feel the benefits of chamber cooperation and initiatives.
Safet Gërxhaliu: Even the longest journey requires the taking of the first step, which we took as chambers. Both in relations between Belgrade and Pristina, Serbia and Kosovo and in regional relations. I think that was the right decision at the right time because it is only through dialogue and cooperation that problems can be solved and prospects opened for this region. We didn’t deal in politics, we’re not trying to solve issues that we can’t solve, we haven’t returned to the past and lost time beautifying it, rather we’ve sought a route and resources to build the future together. And there is no dilemma that the future of this region is in the economic cooperation that will contribute to the growth and development of our economies. After many years, we have created the first joint institution in this region – a joint regional chamber, which represents the voice of almost half a million companies from this region.
The region’s chambers of commerce constantly send politicians a common message regarding the importance of preserving political stability: that every time they sharpen rhetoric, they must be aware that they’ve harmed our economies
To what extent do political processes (opportunities) in the region maintain the goals you’ve set for yourselves?
Marko Čadež: If we were to observe just growth in trade alone, we could conclude that the inherited unresolved issues and political turbulence in the region have no major negative impact on economic relations. It is true that our businesspeople – driven by their natural interest to cooperate – traded with each other even when the circumstances were tougher.
However, for everything beyond regular trade – for the formation of joint companies, consortiums, joint participation on world markets – we need a higher degree of political stability, without needing to mention how important that is for foreign investors. Worsening relations at the political level cause some processes that depend on governments and state institutions, and that is important to businesspeople, to slow down or halt entirely. Let’s say that we start harmonising regulations and procedures, removing obstacles to doing business, and then political sparks fly and these processes are moved to the back-burner. This is not good for either domestic companies or the image of the region in the international business community. That’s why the region’s chambers of commerce constantly send politicians a common message regarding the importance of preserving political stability: that every time they sharpen rhetoric, they must be aware that they’ve harmed our economies.
Safet Gërxhaliu: It’s always easier for businesspeople to find a common language than it is for politicians. Our common language is economic cooperation. Although progress has been made in the last few years, via the Berlin Process, and although the economy and tangible projects have finally become topics of talks, in truth – both in the regional context and in relations between Serbia and Kosovo – economic cooperation is a hundred steps ahead of the political side. It is true that in the Balkans we cannot yet speak of economic cooperation beyond political connotations, but we, as Chambers, have done everything to eliminate possible political meddling.
Furthermore, our cooperation simultaneously serves the function of improved political relations, because it is only through economic development that we can achieve political stability, social peace, accelerated integration processes and improvements in the poor perception of the region. That is an extra reason for politics to be with us, for us to share a common goal, for us to apply our model of cooperation in our communications and relations with politicians.
In your opinion, has the region matured in its attitude towards removing economic barriers?
Marko Čadež: Since the last year’s Summit on the Western Balkans, held in Trieste, at which the Multi-annual Action Plan on Regional Economic Area in the Western Balkans Six (MAP REA) was adopted, progress has been achieved. The political will exists, governments have done a lot, and the coordinators in the cabinets of the prime ministers have dedicated themselves to the implementation of harmonised measures. However, from the perspective of businesspeople, the results could be even better and systemic solutions should additionally improve conditions for doing business in the region.
Accordingly, the chambers of commerce of the Western Balkans Six, gathered in the Chamber Investment Forum, called on all governments of the region, the European Commission and the EU member states involved in the Berlin Process, to further devote themselves and to work together on speeding up the implementation of the Action Plan, in order for companies in the Western Balkans to begin enjoying visible benefits of regional integration as soon as possible.
The Board of Directors of the Chamber Investment Forum adopted a declaration with recommendations that the economies of all participants join in the implementation of the regional cooperation agenda. In order to ensure better coordination within the region, eliminate barriers, and ensure the faster implementation of agreed policies that will enable the creation of a single economic space, governments need to allocate more resources – both in terms of people and money – for implementation of the envisaged measures. To the best of our knowledge, the establishing of better economic cooperation is being dealt with by fewer than 20 people in all the governments of the Western Balkan Six. MAP REA coordinators in prime ministers’ cabinets are not a sufficient mechanism to accelerate regional economic integration. We see one solution in the establishment of ministries for regional cooperation within each government, just as the Nordic countries have regional cooperation ministries.
Safet Gërxhaliu: The need for capacity building and support mechanisms for the implementation of more than a hundred measures, which all the governments of the region are obliged to implement, is further reflected in the list of business community recommendations that we submitted in our Declaration. It’s a huge job. Starting from the removal of all non-tariff barriers within the region, the mutual recognition of certificates, alongside faster introduction of European standards and electronic documents, which will enable businesspeople to trade goods in the region cheaper and faster, via better and easier access to capital, carrying out the digital transformation of our economies and companies, to the creation of education systems that meet the needs of the economy, the mutual recognition of qualifications and enabling the greater mobility of workers…
The meetings with Nordic businesspeople represents another opportunity to present ourselves to the international business community as a region as a whole, and not as small national markets and individual players
What is in the focus of the Chamber Investment Forum’s activities today?
Marko Čadež: The internationalisation of operations by increasing mutual exchanges and exchanges between our economies and the world, creating the conditions to attract more investments to the region, introducing dual education and digitising business… This is the essence of the projects we’ve launched and which we create, and for which we receive international support. The European Commission recently supported a project to improve the competitiveness of the Western Balkan economy.
We will launch implementation as early as the beginning of next year. The first group of activities awaiting us is to strengthen dialogue with the business community regarding implementation of the Multi-annual Action Plan, but also a dialogue between the regional business community and EU institutions on implementation of so-called ‘more inclusive expansion’.
This project will provide chambers with new instruments for improving support to the business for operations in the region and in Europe, such as databases of regulatory and market conditions for the marketing of certain products or info days and training courses for small enterprises on the opportunities and benefits brought to them by the regional economic space. Through the second component of the project, we will work on increasing the international competitiveness of SMEs: by organising joint appearances at foreign fairs, providing technical assistance to companies applying for funds from EU projects and promoting the inclusion of our companies in the supply chains of large companies. Three major investment conferences are also planned in order to promote the region and successful business stories among foreign investors. Alongside direct support to the economy, the project also envisages improvements to the capacities of chambers of commerce and support for strengthening their cooperation through the Chamber Investment Forum.
Safet Gërxhaliu: Alongside this new major project that will be funded by the European Commission, we are already working – with the support of the German Organisation for International Cooperation (GIZ) – to improve the export potential of the SME sector. The aim of the project is to improve the services of the chambers of commerce of the Western Balkans for the support of SMEs exporting more through their inclusion in regional value chains.
A special focus is on companies in the field of fruit and vegetable processing. Within the scope of this project, we will develop an internal platform for the exchange of information and good practises between the chambers of the region, but will also improve chamber services for assisting SMEs in interconnecting and mutually associating, as well as educating them as well as possible for work with leading companies in the region.
Europe has recognised and acknowledged that we have become the strongest factor of cohesion in the region, while political leaders respect us. And, most importantly, that is appreciated by our businesspeople, who increasingly feel the benefits of chamber cooperation and initiatives
Furthermore, with the help of the EBRD, we have established and are developing and planning to upgrade the first online investment platform with all the necessary information that will ease the process of investing in the Western Balkans for potential investors.
Our desire is to apply throughout the entire region the excellent experience of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, which – with the assistance of the Chamber of Commerce of Austria (WKO) and with the financial support of the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) and Germany’s GIZ – has become an example of good practise in the introduction of dual education and in the digital transformation of the economy. Discussions are underway with Austrian and German partners.
Belgrade will this week be marked by joint and individual forums and bilateral talks between companies from the Nordic region and the Western Balkans. Why is that important for companies from this region and what can the Western Balkan economy offer Nordic investors?
Marko Čadež: I previously noted that there are at least three major economic reasons that make it important for Serbia, and for companies from the whole of the Western Balkans, to strengthen economic cooperation with the Nordic region. The first is that it has a market that’s bigger than our entire region. The second reason is the investments of serious companies like the Nordic ones that already operate in Serbia and other Western Balkan economies. The third reason is the transfer of modern technologies, business models, standards and the knowledge and experience of Nordic countries that are invaluable to us. Interest in improving our cooperation is mutual. Testifying to this is the more than 160 companies, both ours and Nordic ones, that have already registered.
Safet Gërxhaliu: Participation in this week’s meetings with Nordic businesspeople is part of the activities of the Chamber Investment Forum on promoting the potential of the region as a whole and connecting our companies to participate jointly on third markets, efforts to create regional value chains and consolidate and unify our offer to make it more competitive, to present ourselves as one region and one economy. That’s why we established the joint regional chamber, and that’s why we advocate that we appear before buyers and investors as a unique investment destination and a unique market of 18 million consumers. We are aware that the international business community also sees us in that way: that they see us as a region as a whole, and not as small national markets and individual players.