Christoph Leitl, President of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber:

In Serbia We Found Partners and Friends

Serbia is on the road to the EU, and on that road it needs investment and support, and we will do everything to help, because we are part of the European family. Austrian companies in Serbia have met with trust and readiness for long-term partnership. It is also important that people in Serbia have confidence and corresponding expectations of us, which we want to satisfy.

Christoph Leitl

Even though the two most important topics of the recent Austrian economic meeting in Belgrade were two messages of foreign minister Sebastian Kurz on sharing the burden of the refugee crisis on the Balkan route leading to Austria and Austrian assistance to Serbia in the accelerated opening of chapters, other messages were heard at the event that are equally, if not more, important in the long-term, such as the unbroken interest of the Austrian economy to maintain the position of number one investor in Serbia and selfless assistance in the transfer of knowledge – including, amongst others, through assistance in establishing a new system for the functioning of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, and creating a solid foundation for the introduction of dual education. “In Serbia we have found partners and friends,” said Christoph Leitl, President of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, in this interview for CorD, thus summarising in one short sentence the depth and solidity of Serbian political and economic links to Austria.

February’s joint arrival in Serbia of Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz and Christoph Leitl, President of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, also represented an example of the joint appearance of Austria’s economic and diplomatic missions, which has made this small country a large exporter with a network of 110 offices that – according to the standards of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation – is considered the world’s best organised chamber network. This was also among the topics CorD discussed in this interview with Mr Leitl.

“We at the chamber are responsible for economic policy, but we also have a close and direct relationship with Austria’s diplomatic network, and this can be seen in the example of this visit, explains Leitl. “We came here together to produce something good. Austria is a small country and we must join forces in order to succeed.”

During the visit of this senior Austrian delegation, Minister Kurz and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić presented an action plan for cooperation between the two countries in the current year, which envisages Vienna’s continued official support for Belgrade on the road to the EU, with the aim of opening further chapters, as well as continuing cooperation with regard to the refugee crisis.

According to the joint action plan, 2016 will be used to open a large number of further chapters, especially 23 (fundamental rights) and 24 (justice, freedom and security), but also chapters 5 (public procurement), 15 (energy), 25 (science and research) and 26 (education and culture), as well as the continuation of regular bilateral political consultations at the deputy foreign ministers’ level.

In the context of further European integration, the role of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is also extremely important and it will – with the help of the transfer of the knowhow of the Austrian Chamber – play a significant role in paving the way for the economic policy of Serbia in the EU. “It’s important for us to provide appropriate assistance and support to countries that want to build economic policy structures, and in that we make our experience and knowledge fully available,” says Leitl.

Through compulsory membership in the Chamber you can expect Serbia to have a much better position at the European level. This is an extremely important point in this process that you can count on in the coming years

As far as the reform of the chamber system in Serbia is concerned, “through compulsory membership in the Chamber you can expect Serbia to have a much better position at the European level. This is an extremely important point in this process that you can count on in the coming years”, says Leitl.

Our interlocutor expects the Chamber to be a strong and eloquent fighter when it comes to the reduction of bureaucratic obstacles, while on the other side it is expected to support the government in the process of implementing the reform agenda.

The action plan envisages support in the development of dual education. A Memorandum of Understanding was officially signed by Serbian Minister of Education, Science and Technological Development, Srđan Verbić, Minister Kurz and the presidents of the chambers of commerce of the two countries, Marko Čadež and Leitl.

Asked how satisfied the Austrian Chamber is with the initial results of the experimental stage of the introduction of dual education in Serbia, in which it was involved, Leitl stated briefly that we are only at the beginning of this process, but that it is also extremely important for Austrian companies whose investments would not be sustainable if they were not supported by the appropriate qualified staff, but also for Serbia, because more investment and new jobs means prosperity for the whole society.

More than 500 Austrian companies are present in Serbia and – with total investment of €2.7 billion in the last 14 years – Austria is, according to the statistics of the National Bank of Serbia (NBS), the biggest investor in Serbia, which is proof that Austrian companies have a lot of confidence in this country, says Leitl speaking to CorD.

The desire of both parties is for the foreign trade exchange that is balanced (in 2015 Serbia exported goods worth €306 million Austria, with imports totalling around €480 million) to be raised from around €800 million in both directions to around a billion euros.

Leitl also attended the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Geography and Vocational Higher School of IMC University from Krems, Austria.

“Serbia is on the road to the EU, and on that road it needs investment and support, and we will do everything to help, because we are part of the European family and we want to invest together, in order to be more successful on the global market,” says Leitl.

Christoph Leitl

In a country where Austria is the number one investor we are obliged to enable companies that have invested here to obtain the appropriate professional personnel that they need, while on the other side further developing that country’s education and training system

How does the chamber’s assistance to companies look in practice when it comes to increasing their exports?

Austria has 110 offices all over the world and if some Austrian company needs contacts, information, preparations for making a deal or support in the realisation of works, our missions are there to support them. We have one such representative office here in Belgrade. For such a developed network of representative offices ready to provide assistance to companies, we gained recognition from the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation that our network is the best in the world. Thanks to that, we can at any time support our small businesses, with minimal costs and maximum efficiency.

Does this mean then that the chamber has a large database of contacts? How much of a priority is this area for investment and development, and can the Austrian Federal Chamber be considered the most powerful representative of the state in terms of economic diplomacy?

My answer to both questions is – yes. We insist on that and we do have such a database. We also have a lot of people on the ground that are present on the scene, and these people, representatives of the chamber in different countries have also, one could say, embedded their roots here in Serbia too, and the fruits of their work are placed at the disposal of Austrian companies.

As for economic diplomacy, yes, we are responsible for the economic policy part, but we also have close and direct cooperation with Austria’s diplomatic network, which can be seen in the example of this visit to Belgrade, because at the same time with me here is the Austrian minister of foreign affairs, who heads this diplomatic network, and myself, on the other hand, as the head of the economic policy side. We came here together to create something good. Austria is a small country and we have to join forces in order to succeed.

How important is the kind of transfer of knowledge established between the Austrian Federal Chamber and the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Industry within the framework of the activities of the Austrian chamber?

It’s important for us to provide appropriate assistance and support to countries that want to build economic policy structures, and in that we make our experience and knowledge fully available. And in a country where Austria is the number one investor we are also obliged to, on the one hand, enable companies that have invested here to obtain the appropriate professional personnel that they need, for example in the IT sector, while on the other side further developing that country’s education and training system. Because, what’s the point in all these investments the economic and social aspects are not successful if in the country where we are present?

How satisfied are you with the current pace of knowledge transfer of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce in the process of reform of the Chamber of Commerce of Serbia. What exactly can we expect from these changes?

You can expect a stronger companion for the Serbian economy that will certainly represent the interests of this economy, and will raise its voice in order to ease procedures and reduce bureaucracy. Through compulsory membership in the Chamber, you can expect a much better position for Serbia at the European level. This is an extremely important point in this process that you can count on in the coming years.

In this context, and the context of this economic gathering, how would you evaluate the interest of Austrian companies in this market?

The fact that Austria is the number one investor in Serbia confirms the interest of Austrian companies in this market. In Serbia we have found partners and friends, and that is very important for the economy – trust and readiness for long-term partnership. Austrian companies in Serbia have come across both of these elements to a large extent. It is also equally important that people in Serbia have confidence and corresponding expectations of us that we want to fulfill.

How do negotiations between the Chamber and the Government look, given that one represents narrower interests – of the business community – which are not always in line with the interests represented by the government – namely the wider interests of society?

General wellbeing is dependent on economic development and this is an area where the economy and the government do not differ. The government and the business community are both interested in growth and employment, because that means we will have more revenue for the country. Moreover, thanks to social partnerships with employees and their trade union organisations, we negotiate each year with a variety of industries on salary increases, so that part of the profits of enterprises are transferred to employees and the growth of the welfare of the whole society.

The joint arrival of the heads of Austrian diplomacy and the federal economic chamber is an example of the joint action of these two networks – diplomatic and political. “We came here together to produce something good,” says Leitl

Was that also the case when you debated the flexibility of jobs and the possible lowering of wages in order to increase flexibility, or in the event of the redistribution of the tax burden from the economy to the whole population?

Regarding the latter, you’re quite right. Our government is also very restrained regarding this issue, although in many areas it was necessary to reduce taxes. And when it comes to the other element, we do not go for increasing efficiency through the reduction of wages, because cutting salaries would also mean reducing purchasing power and that would not lead us in a positive direction.

How has Austria resolved the issue of the shared interests of central and regional chambers of commerce? In Serbia today regional chambers operate very independently. How possible will that be after reform has been carried out according to the Austrian model?

First, the presidents of regional chambers are represented in the federal chamber and they make decisions together that then apply to all. Secondly, our regional chambers are also very independent and that does not represent a problem at all, because their tasks are clearly divided. Provincial and regional chambers are primarily tasked with being a service for members and establishing direct contact with companies, while the federal chamber is responsible for representing interests at the federal level in the field of legislation, as a representative of the Austrian economy in Europe, but also in all matters concerning foreign trade relations and exports.

How are possible disputes resolved in such a system? For example, in Serbia local governments and their chambers are engaged in attracting the same foreign investors and their interests are conflicting.

The fact that there is a fight over investors is not a bad thing, quite the contrary. We live in an era of market economy and competition is its natural element. We also have that in Austria, where individual federal states compete over where to locate some foreign investment. But at the end of the day a decision on that will be made by the investor and not the chamber, and from that side there is no reason for conflict.

In the context of all these changes, how would you assess the current success of dual education, in which Austrian companies also participate successfully?

We are at the beginning, as always in life – we are always at the beginning. I cannot say whether I am satisfied or dissatisfied.