Austria and Serbia enjoy excellent political relations, and Austria very much supports Serbia´s EU-accession. “This, of course, also reflects positively on commercial and economic relations between our two countries, as well as helping to build trust and confidence between institutions and individual citizens,” notes Erika Teoman-Brenner, Austrian Commercial Counsellor to Serbia, whom we spoke with ahead of the visit to Belgrade of Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, scheduled for October. “We are organising a highlevel business delegation and business forum around this visit, which will provide the companies and institutions of both countries with an excellent opportunity to meet and discuss topics of common interest,” says our interlocutor.
Whether the meeting will result in new business opportunities is dependent on many factors. “Companies base their investment decisions on very precise and defined factors that primarily include commercial and financial dimensions. In many cases, Serbia can match these criteria very well and, hence, attract new investments,” says Ms Teoman-Brenner.
As an expert on the Western Balkans, how do you assess the progress achieved through the initiative of the Berlin Process?
– The Berlin Process is certainly a very useful initiative to facilitate and strengthen regional cooperation among the six Western Balkan countries. Connecting transport and energy – the core issue of the Berlin Process – will definitely bring considerable benefits to the businesses and citizens of the region, but a four-year period is too short to assess the results fully. Given that the EU recently increased its financial commitment through the Western Balkans Investment Framework, one could expect the realisation of some key connectivity projects in the region soon. Another very positive dimension of the Berlin Process is the focus on youth and education. Here we see some very promising initiatives and actions taken. Last, but by no means least, we consider the establishment of the Chamber Investment Forum of the Western Balkans as one of the most tangible results of the Berlin Process. I can mention that this happened with the support of the Federal Economic Chamber in Vienna on the occasion of the 2015 Vienna summit. This platform for regional cooperation among chambers has great potential to enhance trade among the companies of the region, increasing their competitiveness and, thus, improving the region’s business and investment climate.
Which reforms do you see as a must in order for Serbia to sustain the kind of robust GDP growth it has recorded to date?
– It is generally agreed that Serbia has achieved impressive results in fiscal consolidation that have created the kind of environment of financial and macroeconomic stability that’s needed to attract new investments. There is also a consensus, however, that major challenges still lie ahead, first of all in terms of structural reforms in the public sector, then completion of the privatisation process, reform of the tax administration and reduction of the grey economy.
What do Austrian investors operating in Serbia highlight as being the most positive outcomes of the reforms conducted? What do they perceive as challenges?
– They see an improvement in the quality of services in some areas of public administration, with the adoption of new laws. The general view is that the prospects of EU accession and the negotiation process represent an important factor for economic reform and consolidation of the rule of law. Shortcomings in the rule of law and excessive bureaucracy are definitely perceived by Austrian and other foreign companies operating in Serbia as the most pressing issues.
Shortcomings in the rule of law and excessive bureaucracy are definitely perceived by Austrian and other foreign companies operating in Serbia as the most pressing issues
How satisfied are you with the results of efforts to pair Austrian producers with Serbian partners? To what extent are Serbian companies ready and able for inclusion in advanced value chains?
– We see a lot of very successful examples of cooperation between manufacturers in Serbia and Austria, mainly in the field of metal working. Serbian companies have a long tradition in this sector and are experienced in working with foreign clients. Actually, our office very often assists Austrian companies in finding cooperation partners. Coming back to your question, this sector is probably one of the most promising in Serbia, in terms of its growth and export potential. There are some key factors to gaining a higher value-added share in international production chains, like innovation capability, productivity and financing. Any policy and action leading to an improvement in these conditions should be welcomed, in order to enhance Serbia’s international competitiveness in general and, in particular, for its SME sector’s ability to become part of international supply chains.
How would you evaluate the success of the 2nd Austria Connect conference?
– First of all, we received very positive feedback from the participants, which is the most important measure of the success of any conference. They particularly valued the opportunity to network in a relaxed and informal way and to get to know “like-minded” people, i.e. business representatives who share an interest in the markets of Southeast Europe. On top of that, the presence of leading public figures from the region in presentations and discussions gave the participants access to first-hand information on upcoming trends and developments, as well the opportunity for personal interaction. To summarise, it was quite a lot of work to organise this event, but it was definitely worth it!
Is there a sufficient supply of high-quality labour in Serbia? How is dual education helping to change the picture?
– From what we hear, Serbia is still quite fortunate to have a sufficient supply of qualified labour, though companies are starting to feel a shortage in some sectors. That’s why we are glad that our counterparts in Serbia decided to introduce elements of dual education to the Serbian education system, as this will certainly contribute to improving the competitiveness of Serbia as a business location, while at the same time increasing youth employment. All experts agree that practical training in a company, combined with school-based training, is probably one of the most efficient instruments for meeting the needs of the labour market.
In order to encourage new companies from Austria to look into the Serbian market, we have started to offer introductory webinars with useful advice on how to start business activities here
How might the Digital Agenda change the business environment, and how is this agenda being supported by Austria?
– Increasing efficiency, optimising processes and the right skills – these are the key challenges for SMEs in the Digital Single Market. The Federal Economic Chamber sees the digitalisation of SMEs as one its priorities, and it actively supports micro firms and small companies. Towards that end, a support programme for SMEs has been launched that includes financial incentives for expert consulting and training. The success of this programme is impressive, not least because it is very effective in tackling the real needs of smaller companies.
What major activities do you envisage for Advantage Austria until the end of 2018?
– In general, we will try to focus even more on highlighting the business opportunities in Serbia, which are a result of promising macro-economic indicators, while at the same time we will continue to provide our well-proven, hands-on and individualised services to our companies. An absolute highlight of this autumn is the official visit of our Federal President, Dr Alexander Van der Bellen, in October.