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Wholeheartedly For The Region

For Serbia, as the largest economy of the Western Balkans, the creation of a regional market that will function according to the principles and freedoms that characterise the European economic space is an important step on the road to joining the EU, and not a substitute

The eight economies of this region – six from the Western Balkans, plus Slovenia and Croatia – that have a combined population of 23 million inhabitants, together exported worldwide goods worth 141.5 billion euros last year, almost half of which actually represents Slovenia’s export balance, or more than 80 per cent of the export performance of three countries – Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia. If we reduce the region to just the Western Balkans, this export result falls dramatically – to just 50.8 billion euros, with Serbian exports accounting for more than 50 per cent.

At the same time, the five Nordic countries – Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden – with a combined population that’s not much higher, at 27 million inhabitants, recorded exports almost five times higher: 658 billion euros and a combined GDP seven times higher than the eight economies of Southeast Europe, or exports and GDP that are 13- 14 times than those of the Western Balkan economies.

Just this one comparison with the Nordic region, as our region’s most often mentioned role model, provides perhaps the clearest answer to the question of why we need regional cooperation. And that’s valid no matter where you define its boundaries and regardless of how you call it – Southeast Europe, the territory of the former Yugoslavia, the Western Balkans, with or without Slovenia and Croatia.

Such an environment has no room for fear that someone will benefit more or less, and will particularly benefit at the expense of others.

In tailoring its new Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, the European Commission calculated that more solid regional integration through the building of a common market would bring additional growth of 10 per cent to the Western Balkan economies. And for the first time, in an official document, it offered the Western Balkans – admittedly with expected conditions – something that the local business community has been insisting on for years in communication with Brussels: the possibility of accessing the European single market even before the Western Balkan economies gain formal membership in the EU. Somehow at the same time, in separate calculations and using specific examples, the World Bank proved the benefits of lifting restrictions on the free movement of people, goods, services and capital within the Western Balkans and between the Western Balkans and the EU, not only for the Western Balkan economies, but also for neighbouring EU countries.

Businesspeople from this region, whether they hail from existing EU member states or candidate countries, have long been clear that there can be no more important job for the politicians and governments of the region than strengthening regional cooperation, and removing obstacles to facilitate business operations and connections, and to increase trade and investments. And here the crucial question for all the small national economies of this region isn’t how to sell as much as possible to one another, and even less so whose side will be left with a deficit or surplus of a few tens of millions of euros, but rather the crucial question is how to develop higher forms of cooperation; how to cluster companies, and their offer, references and free capital, in order to jointly produce and appear on third markets, to create regional players that are competitive around the world.

Among the almost 20,000 companies under majority foreign ownership that operate in Serbia today, more than 4,000 come from the economies of the region, with half of them being Slovenian and Croatian

And to thereby seriously boost the export performances and economic capacities of each country individually and the region as a whole; and to entice new investors from around the world, for whom it matters whether they’re arriving on a market with fifty, a hundred or five hundred thousand companies, or with six, 11 or 20 million consumers. This will also crucially determine the extent to which the region will be able to take advantage of the new opportunity created with nearshoring processes – how many local companies will join the supply chains of international corporations that have been recalibrated in recent years and how many Western European companies will opt to relocate their business operations from more distant destinations to our region.

From the perspective of Serbia, as the Western Balkans’ largest economy, speeding up regional integration and the construction of a common market that functions according to the same principles and freedoms as the European economic area has never been in question. And that isn’t as a replacement for joining the EU, but rather as an important step on the road to the EU. It is certain that the government in Belgrade, like all current and previous governments around the region, could and can be criticised, but there are two facts that are indisputable.

The first fact is that the Serbian market was fully liberalised back in the early 2000s, which was long the subject of internal wrangling and turned out to be a good move, and that Serbia also opened its doors wide to products, companies and investments from the region before others, and that it did so at a time when only the harshest messages were being exchanged at the political level. Among the almost 20,000 companies under majority foreign ownership that operate in Serbia today, more than 4,000 come from the economies of the region, with half of them being Slovenian and Croatian.

Serbia was led purely by sound economic logic and the interests of the economy in initiating new ways to internally accelerate regional cooperation and the construction of a common market itself, when the existing, externally-coordinated models failed to yield the expected results

The second fact is that Serbia entered into and remained wholeheartedly in the processes of regional integration, without any of the hidden intentions sometimes attributed to its moves. Led purely by sound economic logic and the interests of the economy, it initiated new ways to internally accelerate regional cooperation and the construction of a common market itself, when the existing, externally-coordinated models failed to yield the expected results.

Regardless of how those initiatives were called, officially or colloquially – “Mini Schengen”, “CEFTA plus”, “New Deal for the region” or “Open Balkan” – them remained essentially unchanged and reflected the needs of companies from all six economies, which are supported publicly by Slovenian and Croatian businesspeople operating in the Western Balkans. That’s because every company is interested in operating on a larger common market with more consumers, lower costs and fewer barriers to the free movement of people, goods, services and capital; in haulage vehicles packed with their goods travelling through the region without stopping and having to wait for hours in columns many kilometres long at EU entry points; in being able to hire experts and workers from other countries without excessive red tape; in the same rules applying throughout the region, harmonised mutually and with EU standards.

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