Last year, according to official Serbian statistics, Serbia and Austria set a new record in the volume of their bilateral trade exchange totalling 997.8 million euros, while positive developments so far in 2018 indicate that we will end the year with a total exceeding a billion euros. It is true that, according to Austrian statistics, which have certain methodological differences, mutual trade between the two countries exceeded a billion euros by 2016 and reached a total of 1.164 billion euros in 2017.
“It is far more important than a hundred million euros recorded here or there in statistical reports that there is an evident growth trend in the exchange that both Austrian and Serbian statistics have recorded recent years,” says Marko Čadež, president of the Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Serbia (CCIS).
Trade between Austria and Serbia has doubled since 2006, while Serbian exports, as well as its imports from Austria, reached their maximum value in 2017. The total exchange last year was up by 15.1% compared to 2016, while Serbia’s export to the Austrian market grew by 18.5 per cent – to 401.9 million euros – and imports from Austria were up 14.7 per cent – totalling 596 million euros.
However, the ratio of exports’ coverage of imports is still relatively unfavourable on our side?
– Although the Austrian market is among Serbia’s top 15 export destinations, and although Serbian exports have increased 2.6-fold in the past ten years, along with an improvement in the structure favouring products with a higher degree of processing, the growing trade exchange between the two countries is burdened by the commodity deficit on our side – 194 million euros in 2017 and 73.9 million euros in the first half of this year.
However, the coverage of imports by exports has increased significantly in recent years – up from 58.6% in 2013 to 74.4% in the first half of this year, which has been contributed to by investments and exports of Austrian and other foreign investors. For example, sales on the Austrian market of all major export products from Serbia increased last year. Among them, for example, are jumper cable sets, iron and steel products, parts for electric motors, generators, composites and motor vehicles, washing and cleaning products, frozen fruit and fruit juices, televisions and, of course, Austrian glass products from Swarovski, which is the largest exporter from Serbia to Austria.
Some important import items, such as medicines, can’t be substituted easily, but there are those for which we can increase exports significantly in the period ahead, such as furniture industry products and paper. Unlike in the goods exchange, where we record a deficit, we actually have a surplus in the trade in agricultural food products and in the exchange of services with Austria.
How successful are domestic companies in establishing production links with Austrian partners?
– It is in the greatest interest of the Serbian economy for Austrian companies to continue investing in Serbia, for us to attract as much investment as possible in the production- and export-orientated export sectors and high-tech investments, such as Zumtobel in Niš. It is important for our companies to connect with large Austrian companies and join their production and supply chains. At the same time, improved conditions for doing business in Serbia also encourage Austrian SMEs to invest here, to create joint companies or establish production cooperation with our firms in order to export to the Austrian market and third markets with which Serbia has free trade agreements. We are working on the realising of ever more examples of good cooperation with Austrian partners like those already established in the mechanical and leather industries and in the telecommunication sector, as well as on production connections in the fields of the electrical, wood and paper industries, where significant opportunities for this exist.
We will continue to work with Harald Mahrer, the new president of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, on the establishment of dual education and the digital transformation of the economy of Serbia, but also the entire region
How much can strategic cooperation between the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber and the CCIS help in further strengthening the competitiveness of companies?
– The aim of everything we’re doing for the economy – from advocating for entrepreneurs’ initiatives to improve the regulatory framework, via connecting with partners from abroad, providing analytical and other useful services, all the way to digitisation, education and the introducing of dual education – is to help our members in their everyday operations, in strengthening their capacity to grow and develop, in order for them to be more competitive and more productive, to produce and export more.
Serbian companies are already enjoying the benefits of the new method of organising and the functioning of the unique chamber system based on the Austrian model and the great support we had during past years in the process of modernisation from the Austrian Chamber and its former President Christof Leitl.
The strategic partnership between the chambers of Austria and Serbia aimed at strengthening the CCIS’s capacity to support companies is continuing. In the period ahead, as agreed with the new President of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, Harald Mahrer, the Austrian Chamber will specifically support activities aimed at establishing dual education and carrying out the digital transformation of the economy of Serbia, but also the entire region.
The project of the two chambers, which is funded by the Austrian Development Agency, envisages assistance from Austrian colleagues in creating the bylaws and internal chamber acts necessary to fully establish the dual education system in Serbia, as well as strengthening the capacity of the CCIS to implement legal solutions. The Austrian Chamber also supports the introduction of new dual education profiles and the establishment of a web platform with all information on dual education, enabling our students to acquire knowledge and practical skills and then gain employment at Austrian companies operating in Serbia.
Based on the example of Austria’s WIFI system, the CCIS has established its own Business Academy, one of the development directions, of which will also be online training.
Thanks to the support of the German Organisation for International Cooperation and the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, during October more than 20 certified consultants will start working with Serbian companies on the creation of their digital transformation strategies
When will the web platform with a unique and complete database on dual education start to function?
– The Serbian Law on Dual Education, which is actually the first of its kind in the region, will be applied as of September 2019 and the web platform should be established by then. The CCIS will have a significant role in implementing legal solutions through support to the economy in creating or updating education profiles, training instructors to work with students in enterprises and establishing cooperation between companies with schools until the introduction of appropriate registers (public register of companies that have fulfilled conditions for performing work-based teaching; register of all contracts concluded between schools and companies, and a register of licensed instructors) and the establishment and administration of the web platform.
The web platform will greatly ease the implementation of procedures and obligations of participants in dual education, because all information intended for companies, schools, pupils and their parents will be available in one place. Via the web platform, students and parents will be able to inform themselves about dual educational profiles and the schools in which they are taught, to search the database of companies that offer places for learning through work, as well as acquainting themselves with the way students are deployed in companies. At the same time, companies will be able to receive information on how to engage in dual education and what their obligations are, while those companies that already participate in teaching pupils under the dual education model will be able to use this platform for the simpler electronic performing of administrative procedures.
What share of Serbian companies use advanced digital technologies?
– Unfortunately, a large percentage of companies in our entire region, particularly small and medium-sized firms, lag behind when it comes to utilising the benefits of digital technologies. The low level of digitisation was also shown by research conducted by the CCIS among its members for the purpose of creating support programmes for SMEs in the digital transformation process.
The situation is somewhat better in service activities, while digitisation has advanced the least in agriculture. About a third of the 340 surveyed SMEs have no initiative whatsoever when it comes to digitising their business processes, while more than half of them are not planning digitisation projects.
How will the CCIS Digital Transformation Centre help the economy?
– The Centre for Digital Transformation will particularly assist SMEs by informing, advising and educating, proposing transformation and financing models, supporting the implementation of digital solutions, connecting them with those who possess knowledge, technology, instruments and funds, helping them to digitally transform their companies and businesses as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Thanks to the support of the German Organisation for International Cooperation and the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, more than 20 certified consultants will start working with Serbian companies during October on the creation of their digital maps and digital transformation strategies. The plan is for 40 of our SMEs to receive their “digital signposts” by the end of this year, and the possibility to secure, via our Centre, co-financing for the introduction of the technological solutions envisaged by their strategy.