Since 2010, France became progressively the 7th biggest foreign investor in Serbia, which has been strongly contributing to the Serbian growth and export. Positive economic prospects are complimenting long term friendship and strong bilateral relations.
As long as friendship among our citizens endures, I have great hopes that we can build common opportunities out of it, says H.E. Frédéric Mondoloni, Ambassador of France to Serbia. Although a commemorations of 1918 in Paris on November 11, presented a challenge for that friendship, there are many past and present events, which are fortifying ties between our two countries. We took the opportunity to talk with H.E. Frédéric Mondoloni, Ambassador of France to Serbia, about the large investments the French companies are working on in Serbia, prospects for digital economy to bring us closer and current challenges in the Belgrade Pristina dialogue, and importance of stability for the prosperity of the region.
The French company Vinci will become the concessionaire of Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport. What is the significance of this investment in the context of the development of the Serbian-French economic relations?
– The French-Serbian economic relation was first boosted up in 2007, when Michelin acquired the Tigar tyres factory in Pirot, which now hires 3 300 employees and is the 4th biggest exporter in Serbia. Since 2010, trade between France and Serbia has more than doubled and represents nearly a billion euros in 2018. In this period, France also became progressively the 7th biggest foreign investor in Serbia. Today, more than 100 French companies are operating in Serbia and employ around 11 000 people. The new significant investments by Vinci in Nikola Tesla airport and Suez in Vinca landfill contribute greatly to strengthening further the growing French-Serbian economic relation.
You have recently commended the French-Serbian business community for being the driving force behind the bilateral relations between the two countries. To what extent this economic element has not been present in development of mutual relations?
– The French-Serbian business community has been very active and is one of the main assets of our bilateral relation Thanks to its engagement, new areas for investments and partnerships are being considered – like digital economy – and Serbia is getting more and more attractive to French investors. The economic factor is definitely one of the pillars of our bilateral relation and a major asset to deepen it further.
In May and June you organized a major regional forum called France-Balkans. What expectations do you have from the visit of the French business delegation that is supposed to come to Serbia together with President Macron?
– The business forum organized in May was a great success, with more than 400 companies from France and the Balkan region. It shows the growing vitality of our economic relation. We do intend to organize such events in the coming year for bringing French and Serbian businesses closer, maybe on more specific topics – as the digital economy. As you know, the President had to postpone the visit scheduled in December 2018 for internal reasons. A new date will be set for this visit which will represent both a significant moment of our political relation and a major occasion to put forward the French-Serbian economic ties. Indeed, several contracts or agreements must be signed on this occasion ranging from public administration reform to defense industry. I am also convinced that this visit will raise further the visibility of Serbia among the French investors to emphasize the numerous assets of the Serbian market.
Do you think that the current events concerning Belgrade-Pristina relations can lead to an increased instability in the region and affect economic stability in Serbia?
– France is very much supporting the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue because we are convinced that stability cannot be fully ensured in the future without a mutually acceptable compromise between both parties. In this regards, every measure that jeopardize this dialogue must be avoided as they create useless instability and do not contribute to normalization – that implies concessions on both sides. Stability is not just good in itself: it is also a key factor for economic development and – consequently – of improvement of the living conditions of the people of the region. This is why we are concerned by the lack of progress in Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, as it can uselessly impact both the stability of the region and slow down its economic development. The 100% raise by Kosovo on tariff on goods imported from Bosnia and Serbia is a very unfortunate move. This measure should be cancelled as soon as possible, as it was requested in several occasions by the EU.
What is your assessment of the overall reforms in Serbia and the efforts that are made in the European integration process?
– Serbia has already made significant efforts for implementing key economic reforms. These efforts must be commended, all the more as they were painful for the country and its population. But they were not done in vain, as the macroeconomic situation of Serbia is now positive with a growth rate around 4% of GDP for 2018, a public debt below 60% and a decreasing unemployment rate. This very positive step must now come with complementary reforms in the area of social welfare and rule of law which are another necessary component of EU accession reforms. Serbia has undertaken such reforms on the independence of judiciary, legislation on corruption, the establishment of a new media strategy etc. I know these topics can generate some criticism but, in the end, France and the EU will assess the progress of Serbia regarding the implementation of these reforms and of the EU standards.
Do you think that the two open chapters are a good result, or could Serbia do much better?
– Serbia has dedicated real efforts to initiate the necessary reforms to join the EU. France and the EU wished to acknowledge these efforts by opening two more chapters. However, for several years now, France and the EU have called on the attention of the Serbian authorities on the issue of rule of law. This topic, covered by chapters 23 and 24, is a highly important one with regards to accession and the concrete implementation of these two chapters will be a key factor as to the pace of Serbia’s accession.
In which reforms is France most interested in here and thus has been helping with their implementation?
– France is attentive to every reform, as all of them are equally important to join the EU. We have been very much involved in crucial economic reforms like statistics, public finance management or transport strategy because they represented a robust basis on which we could boost up the French-Serbian economic relation. As I mentioned we are also attentive to the reforms related to rule of law, and especially regarding the freedom of media, independence of the judiciary, fight against criminality and corruption etc. which are important components for every democratic society. France is also focused on chapter 35 and the normalization of the relation with Pristina, even though we know that – on this specific aspect – efforts have also to be accomplished by Kosovo.
French citizens sincerely love Serbia
There is a lot of talk about the tradition of the Serbian-French friendship. What would you single out as a new dimension of these mutual relations?
– There is indeed such a tradition, which is old and robust. This is why I deeply regret the impact which the incident of November 11th caused in Serbia: I know that many people felt hurt. I regret this all the more as this Embassy had been working very hard for months to prepare make the commemorations of 1918 a prominent moment of the French-Serbian friendship. I am now more determined than ever to work to improve this relation because I could see among the reactions of the French public that a significant number of French citizens do know the history of our friendship and sincerely love this country. Today, this friendship is perceptible in culture, economy and daily life. This last element is maybe the most important, as all the French people who live in Serbia or who travel to Serbia agree to commend the warm welcome they receive from the Serbian citizens. As long as this friendship among citizens endures, I have great hopes that we can build common opportunities out of it.