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Speech at the Business Event: “Investment, growth and job creation”, official visit to Serbia, 30 January-1 February 2018

Speeches
Hotel Metropol Palace, Belgrade
31-01-2018

(check against delivery)

 

We have just witnessed the signature of two important projects that concretise the exceptional relation between the European Union and Serbia:

  • A project worth over 268 million euros to reconstruct and modernise the Sićevo-Dimitrovgrad section of the Trans-European rail corridor.
  • This is part of the Connectivity Agenda for transport and energy connection across the Western Balkans and with the European Union.
  • The EU can secure these investments, estimated to boost regional GDP growth by one percentage point per year over 15 years and help to create more than 200.000 jobs.
  • Secondly, an 18 million euro project, part of the Regional Housing Programme addressing the needs of displaced persons and providing durable housing to remaining refugees from the war in ex-Yugoslavia.
  • The European Union has pledged over 230 million euros to the programme.
  • Serbia is the biggest beneficiary. It has received 105 million euros to date, providing housing for close to 6.300 families who lost everything in tragic moments of their lives.

This is what European solidarity is about.

 

I would like to thank the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Serbia for setting up today’s important event.

I strongly believe that economic diplomacy can play an important role in bringing politicians and industry together to facilitate trade and investment opportunities through business-to business meetings.

This is why I launched the “missions for growth” already in 2012 as European Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship.

 

The countries of the Western Balkans are part of Europe, not only geographically, historically and culturally, but we also have common values and we share key political, security and economic interests.

As an Italian and Mediterranean, I feel this bond very strongly.

It has been said repeatedly: 2018 is the year of chance for this region. I fully agree.

 

To underline this and to contribute to the strengthening of these ties, I am now visiting the region for the second time as President of the European Parliament.

Due to its own accomplishments, Serbia is a front runner candidate for European Union membership.

This positive momentum is reinforced by an increasing popular support. I am very happy that the latest opinion poll shows that over half the Serbian population (52 %) is in favour of EU membership.

At the end of 2017, the 11th and 12th negotiating chapters out of 35 were opened. I am optimistic that more chapters will soon be opened and others provisionally closed.

The 2025 horizon is real, but it is important to stress that it is a horizon that is merit-based.

Serbia is making good progress, but of course more work will be needed in the coming years in a number of areas, including the rule of law, economic reform and tackling regional disputes.

This is first and foremost Serbia’s own interest and responsibility but rest assured that the European Union will be at your side every step on the way to support and promote the accession process.

I am very encouraged by the commitment to this process shown by the Serbian leadership. Both the President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Skupština, stressed this once again when we met earlier today.

I am confident that the new EU Strategy for the Western Balkans to be presented next week will reaffirm 2025 as a possible date of membership for Serbia as well as for Montenegro.

This is very welcome.

It should also outline the path to get there and it will surely describe the path to a legally binding agreement between Serbia and Kosovo as one necessary ingredient.

President Vucic has played a constructive role in moving forward on this dialogue and to stress that in this context, the Serbian internal dialogue on future Serbia-Kosovo relations.

I welcome the President’s strong leadership, aimed at a bright future for Serbia and at making this an important moment in the country’s history.

Let me now turn to the theme of this event.

Serbia’s economy has gone through drastic changes in recent years.  

The political, social and economic structural reforms undertaken since 2016 are therefore very welcome, and are showing some very good results, notably on macroeconomic stabilisation.

Imports and exports have grown, unemployment is decreasing, debt levels have been sharply reduced and there has been an important fiscal consolidation. As a result, private consumption is increasing.

To attract further foreign investment, further economic and political reforms are necessary in a number of areas, notwithstanding the important efforts already made by the current government.

 

Let me start with the business environment. We all know that it is not the public sector but you here today who can create new jobs and strengthened growth if you are given the right conditions.

Serbia is moving up on the Ease of doing business ranking, but there is always more that can be done.

Administrative procedures and red tape need to be further reduced and there needs to be a level playing field for all market actors.

I would encourage Serbia to start recognising EU health and phyto-sanitary certificates since this would reduce both costs and time at the borders.

The legal environment needs to be improved, for instance to strengthen contract enforcement and to speed up legal proceedings.

Unemployment figures are improving but remain too high, far above the average EU rate, and especially among youth.

This is not just a Serbian challenge but a regional and a global one.

We have all seen the possible negative consequences of a young generation without real prospects for the future in their country: brain drain, lost faith in government and authorities, increasing populism and also further attraction to criminality and radicalism.

Educated youth having left Serbia to seek a better future elsewhere must be attracted back, to turn brain drain into circular migration.

Efforts to strengthen regional cooperation and trade must also be further encouraged. I welcome Serbia’s commitment to the multi-annual action plan to develop the Regional Economic Area at last year’s Western Balkans Summit in Trieste in Italy. The implementation of the plan must proceed.

Commitments were also made in Trieste to strengthen connectivity by further promoting regional infrastructures, digital markets, labour mobility and mutual recognition of professional qualifications, all vital to regional growth.

As you know, the European Union is already today Serbia’s most important economic partner by far: we are your biggest trade partner, investor and donor.

Around two thirds of your imports and exports are with the EU, and almost three quarters of your cumulated foreign direct investments come from the EU.

I would like to see a further integration of our markets and more of joint ventures in all economic sectors.

Investing in a clear EU accession perspective can only boost investment and the economy.

As for support, the EU grants to Serbia exceed 3 billion euros since 2000 and I can assure you that our support will continue.

Serbia is already an active participant in a number of EU programmes and projects. Let me just mention a few examples:

  • Some 5,000 scholarships have been given out to Serbian students and higher education staff through Erasmus + ,
  • 169 Serbian research and innovation projects have been given funding through Horizon 2020,
  • Through the Cosme programme, thousands of Serbian small and medium-sized enterprises have benefited from favourable new financing.

 

I want to also underline the important work of the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development as well as the Council of Europe Development Bank.

The participation here today of Mr Scannapieco, Mr Monticelli and Mr Berg is a further testimony to this and you will hear from them later on.

 

In summary, Serbia’s accession to the EU and its half a billion people internal market is a natural choice and would be of significant mutual gain.

 

Such gains go well beyond the economy.

The last 60 years of European integration has meant that today, disputes between Member States are solved at the negotiation table. War between Member States has become totally unthinkable.

For a region as recently war-torn as the Western Balkans, the importance of this cannot be understated.

History shows that closer economic cooperation leads to stronger political integration, creating a sense of unity and of solidarity.

The European identity is strongly related to the national identity. I am European because I am Italian, just like you are European because you are Serbian.

This unity gives member states influence and leadership in the wider region and on the global scene.

The accession process is a strategic investment in peace and democracy, security and prosperity for Serbia’s citizens.

 

As a front runner, Serbia has particular responsibilities in leading the Western Balkans in the right direction, thus giving a key contribution to the stability of the region.

I am convinced that Serbia’s commitments will translate into action, so that when we arrive at the next Western Balkans Summit in Sofia in May, which I intend to attend, it will have taken further steps still towards membership.

We will walk with you toward the future and we are looking forward to welcoming you into our European Union family

For further information:

europarl.president.press@europarl.europa.eu