H.E. ANDERS CHRISTIAN HOUGARD, Ambassador Of Denmark To Serbia: It is Time to Focus on Business

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My main priority as Ambassador of Denmark will be to support Danish exporters and investors coming to Serbia. An increase in trade and investments is to the benefit of all in our two countries. Another ambition of mine is to follow up on last year’s 100-year celebrations with even more activities in culture and public diplomacy

One of the main ambitions of H.E. Anders Christian Hougard, Ambassador of Denmark to Serbia is to increase trade relations between Serbia and Denmark.

Why are the trade figures modest today?

I consider it a good sign when bilateral assistance yields way to trade: it means the economy is recovering so foreign missions and organizations can redirect their attention to support its development. Denmark has had a range of development programs in Serbia – from Fruits and Berries agro project to Media freedom initiative. Now is the time to focus on the development of the business sector and, especially SMEs. According to our data for 2016, Denmark’s exports of goods to Serbia was worth around 122 million Euro, while we imported Serbian goods in the value of around 52 million Euro. Danish economy is specific and very SME-driven. We all know of course the big Danish companies, such as Carlsberg, Novo Nordisk, Grundfos, but in Denmark SMEs employ around 2/3 of the working population! As they can rarely compete with big players, they tend to find their niches – usually high-tech or innovative ones, and their solutions are not applicable in all the markets. With the development of the Serbian economy, we see that those niche solutions are more and more relevant here as well, so I expect an increase in trade figures in the years to come. Also, more and more Serbian companies will have their own innovative solutions to offer in a single EU market, including also Denmark. By trading with the EU, your country has a big advantage of accessing the single market, but it will also encourage it and the local companies to innovate constantly and become more competitive.

How many Danish companies currently do business in Serbia and which sectors do they occupy?

Approximately 40 Danish companies do business in Serbia, and they vary in size. They seem to be very happy here – some are expanding production facilities, like Ergomade or Grundfos. Some are expanding the teams they are hiring, like NIRAS and COWI. Some have been here for more than 20 years, like Velux, Danfoss, Novo Nordisk. Many present top companies in their field, like Carlsberg or DSV Logistics and Shipment. We really have an array of companies present here, and they are all here to stay! And according to our trade colleagues, more are interested to join their Danish colleagues here, so the signs are encouraging. Just like in Denmark, the Danish companies in Serbia represent many sectors and I believe that is a sign of a healthy economy! From machinery and heavy equipment, through to pharmaceuticals and healthcare all the way to IT and creative industries – we have it all and we are happy to share it with Serbia.

Which features of the Serbian economy do you consider as the most attractive for the prospective Danish investors?

I would say Serbia is very attractive for investments and this is how we try to present it to the potential new Danish players in the market. However, we do not paint a pink image. Danish embassies usually have a representative of the Trade Council who is actively working on creating business opportunities for Danish companies. Mind you, from Belgrade we cover three more countries in addition to Serbia, so it is a lot of work! Luckily, we have excellent honorary consuls in Podgorica, Sarajevo and Skopje so we are well covered there as well. When it comes to attracting Danish companies to Serbia, some of the advantages we mention are hard-working and educated workforce, central government and local authorities support to the investors, proximity to Denmark and the same time zone, similar mentality and business acumen, various free trade agreements. Of course, there is much-discussed labour force ‘price-quality’ ratio, but I would not say this plays the crucial role for an investor. They are all here for the long run, so they have to take all the elements into consideration. We also mention a big bureaucracy and tiresome procedures, but I am pleased to hear that the Government is actively working on reducing those and digitizing its services. Once this is done, the administration will become easier, smoother and more transparent.

How visible are the region and Serbia from the perspective of the Danish foreign policy? Where do you see your role if any in the EU accession process of the region?

Serbia became an EU candidate country under the Danish presi-dency in 2012, and Denmark supports Serbia on its path towards the EU. Over the last 10 years Denmark has been engaged in a number of programmes in Serbia with one of the biggest being an agricultural project in southern Serbia. In cooperation with the Serbian Ministry of Agriculture and Environment we launched the programme Fruits & Berries where farmers in the region were assisted in developing their production of fruits. The programme has contributed to economic growth and employment in the private sector in Southern Serbia creating more than 800 jobs, most of those women. Furthermore, Denmark has supported judicial reforms, media freedom and the resettlement of refugees in Serbia. This includes capacity building of the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary with particular focus on the areas covered by the EU negotiating chapters 23 and 24, as well as support of the Government of Serbia and local self-governments in the realization of Local Action Plans on migration management and in the improvement of refugees’ access to information, protection mechanisms and needed reception assistance. Additionally, the Danish embassy supported Slavko Ćuruvija Fondacija’s (SCF) “Advancing Media Freedom in Serbia” project – independent, strong and responsible media are a pillar of every democratic society!

These prospects for membership in 2025 are very much debated in the Serbian society. How do you see the probability of new members entering Europe?

The debate around the membership is a good sign, it means people care to be part of the EU. I believe that the fact there is a Western Balkans Strategy means the EU is open to new members. There is absolutely no doubt whether the countries of the Western Balkans belong to the European family. Another question is harmonization with the EU acquis and all the procedures and policies the membership bears with it. So, in terms of mentality, history and culture, Serbia is no doubt part of Europe. In terms of societal and economic reforms, much is to be done but you have our full support. We are carefully monitoring progress in chapters like 23 and 24 (both linked to judiciary), chapter 27 (environment), chapter 15 (energy) but all chapters are very horizontal, so there is no progress in one chapter without progress in another. That is both good and bad, as it means all the state apparatus needs to put big efforts to align behind a mutual cause and pull to bring results. So, it will take the necessary time, but Serbia has always been an obvious candidate and real membership prospect is already there. I firmly believe that true regional stability and a positive trend in the economy will create a strong foundation for Serbia, the momentum is already there. Joining the EU also means building and maintaining viable institutions and “checks and balances”. An independent judiciary, a trust-based administration free from corruption and, last but not least, the value of having free media are indispensable pillars. All of these are real challenges for all the countries in transition, so we expect from Serbia progress in those areas – not just for the sake of EU membership, but for the sake of its citizens. A final note – in Denmark we have strong institutions, this is one of the reasons the Danes are happy and pay their taxes gladly, but the state works constantly on keeping the institutions strong. So in a way, the work never stops and the challenges are always there for all of us.

It is often believed that the EU doesn’t want new members which may endanger fragile stability. How in that context do you see the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade?

The EU member states have worked long and hard to create a certain environment and they put in a log of effort to maintain it, so it is understandable they are protective of it. I consider it patriotic in a way – you build your country and you want to protect its stability, its nature, the standard of living and citizens’ safety, that is perfectly understandable. From that perspective, the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina will not only solve political and practical matters, but also show everyone’s willingness to discuss and compromise – once you are a member, that is the future of your relations with the EU. And not just in the EU, but all global organizations are like that – a lot of discussion and compromise. We have followed the recent events with concern, so we hope everything will be solved.

What are your major bilateral priorities apart from economics?

My main priority as Ambassador of Denmark will be to support Danish exporters and investors coming to Serbia. An increase in trade and investments is to the benefit of all in our two countries. Another ambition of mine is to follow up on last year’s 100-year celebrations with even more activities in culture and public diplomacy. Our common celebrations of a century of diplomatic relations between Serbia and Denmark in 2017 have highlighted and renewed our strong ties. The Embassy experiences a growing interest in Danish culture as well as the Danish way of life. Information about Denmark has been provided through various outreach activities including by showing the exhibition Copenhagen Solutions in Novi Sad and Belgrade. Furthermore, during recent years there has been Danish participation in Belgrade Dance Festival, Belgrade Jazz Festival, Belgrade Book Fair and different film festivals. It is my intention to keep up this exchange of cultures between Serbia and Denmark through programmes like these

BALKAN IS SECURE REGION

Prior to arriving in Belgrade you have served in Teheran and Zagreb and before that elsewhere in the Middle East. From today’s perspective how do you see the security situation in the Balkans?

The Balkans is seen as a rather secure region, I would say. There is always a chance of a crisis, but I would say this is an exception, rather than a rule.

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