Frank Hannigan, President of the Irish-Serbian Chamber of Commerce: We have a lot of opportunities for cooperation

I am still learning about Serbia. It is a lifetime commitment.

15 years ago on a spring day, I stood outside Hotel Moskva looking back toward Albania Palace. I thought to myself, this city is going to be a part of my future. I have been visiting Belgrade and the region regularly every since, said Frank Hannigan, President of the Irish-Serbian Chamber of Commerce.

Frank Hannigan, President of the Irish-Serbian Chamber of Commerce

How well do you know the tradition, culture and Serbia in general as a country that is geographically quite far from Ireland?

In terms of culture and history, I am invested in understanding both. I have read extensively starting off with Black Lamb Grey Falcon written by the Anglo-Irish writer Rebecca West.  Misha Glenny’s books were stunning ways to grapple with history and culture. He introduced me to Ivo Andrić, simply one of Europe’s greatest writers. Andrić captures fine detail as well as the bigger picture.

I tried learning the Serbian Language but with modest success. I am much more successful at learning about and consuming Serbian food and drink!  I have Serbian friends who generously invite me into their family lives. I have been to weddings, baptisms and Slava, celebrations that explain the most important part of Serbia – its people.

Our economic cooperation is modest in scope, but with great potential. Which economy segments have the greatest potential and how can Serbia attract investors and companies from Ireland?

There are three low-hanging fruits: Agri and Food offer huge opportunities. We have built a global reputation for the integrity and quality of Irish food. The world is yet to fully grasp the quality and range of food that Serbia has to offer.

Technology is central to our economy. We will never have sufficient people available to fill the available roles in ICT, Medical Devices and Pharma. The cities on the Danube are reservoirs of talent. Irish firms are making their way to build teams in Belgrade and Novi Sad. I am proud to see Serb companies like Nordeus, Comtrade and Black Fox building teams in Ireland.

The third opportunity is Tourism. Serbia offers Extreme Beauty, buzzing cities and endless nature to explore. EXIT in Novi Sad is one of the world’s greatest cultural festivals. Serbia offers fresh experiences for tourists that have grown tired of the same old options. We need direct flights from Ireland to Serbia. We need to find a way to Visa Reciprocity to allow Serbs to discover the beautiful Irish Coast and the hum of Dublin and Cork both well on their way to be recognized as Global Cities.

All three opportunities, Agri-food, Technology and Tourism make sense when you discover how alike Serbs and Irish are. We work well together, whether it’s producing films, manufacturing concrete or imagining the reinvention of agriculture. It just works.

The launch of the Irish-Serbian Chamber of Commerce was an important business event and carries the potential for better cooperation in promoting and facilitating trade between Ireland and Serbia, as well as expanding the network of Irish and Serbian business people. What can both countries gain by combining knowledge from their respective unique cultures?

Our vision of Europe is not a melting pot where we all become one. The vision is of a rich tapestry where we all retain our cultures intact and, in fact, enriched by evolving in the context of a powerfully coherent Europe in business, politics and culture.

As two small countries in the context of a 750m Continent, we are natural allies. We both bring a lot to the table. Serbia and Ireland both have suffered historically and survived. This is a time when both nations should thrive.

“The first step is to build networks: Practical relationships built on respect, integrity and endless curiosity”

Our pasts bring with them connectivity all over the planet. We are the first place most US technology firms set up a base outside of their home country. That is no accident. Serbia has global ties that go back to medieval times, and it has ties that recognize the leadership role that Yugoslavia played in the Non-Aligned Movement.

Serbia has an important pedigree in manufacturing. That potential is not yet fully realized in the 21st Century. I believe Irish capital and entrepreneurs can play a role in making that happen.

The most important capital both countries have is our human capital. The young ambitious graduates who want to make their mark on the world.

I hope that by building a network of leaders in both countries we can imagine better versions of both countries, where those young people can find meaningful careers.

The opportunities for a successful partnership between Ireland and Serbia are numerous. What can we learn from each other? What can Serbia offer Ireland and vice versa?

The Irish have been described as the most northerly Mediterranean tribe – and I think it is true. We are surrounded by Germanic people who are so different from us. I think the most interesting thing we will learn is how similar we are.

The economic success in Ireland has been studied in most capitals around the world. It really is a miracle. As a kid, I lived in one of the poorest parts of Europe. My kids grow up in one of the wealthiest parts of the planet.

In contrast, I think we have lost some of the connective tissue that made family and community bulletproof in Ireland. When I go to Southern Serbia, I remember some of the things Ireland has lost.

A good life is spent constantly learning. That is true for countries as well as individuals. There are so many lessons for both countries to learn from each other.

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