Sanja Ivanić, French-Serbian Chamber of Commerce: Great Potential

According to French companies, the reason why they are staying in the Serbian market are the advantages found in a market that is undergoing a full expansion and allows for regional presence. The advantages also include big industrial tradition, skilled and adaptable workforce, better infrastructures and flexible labour legislation

In addition to traditionally good political and friendly relations, Serbia and France have been continuously bolstering economic cooperation over the last ten years. France is among the ten biggest external trade partners of Serbia. Interestingly, if we count all Western Balkan countries, Serbia is France’s main business partner. We have talked with Sanja Ivanić, General Director of the French-Serbian Chamber of Commerce about further opportunities for even closer cooperation between the two countries.

What will be your priorities in regard to the operations of the French-Serbian Chamber of Commerce in the coming period?

– Our plans and priorities are to continue with the implementation of projects we launched a few years ago, which aim at boosting the regional cooperation. We are already directly operating in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, and we have also signed an agreement with the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of Macedonia, which will support us in North Macedonia, in order to attract French companies to which we offer a presence in a larger market. In October, we became the official partner of the French national agency for internationalization of the French businesses, Business France, so in 2020, just like any other year, we will do our best to continue to be an effective support to French companies interested in the Serbian market. On the other hand, we will continue to organize as many events as possible for the growing network of our members, to facilitate cooperation between the member companies and create new business opportunities. In 2020, we also plan to be more active in the Serbian regions and organize events outside Belgrade.

How much do the results of the 2019 external trade between the two countries contribute to your optimism concerning further economic cooperation?

– Our external trade has doubled in six years and the presence of French companies in Serbia has become more visible. The value of the external trade exceeded one billion euro this year. Besides, France was the single largest foreign investor in 2018, primarily thanks to the arrival of Vinci Airports in Serbia. These investments will have a positive effect on other French companies interested in Serbia. The business climate in Serbia is another factor that will boost economic relations since it has improved significantly in recent years.

How do your members view the business climate in Serbia in terms of opportunities for further business expansion and what success stories from your members would you like to share with our readers?

– Our members are satisfied with the business environment in Serbia, because year after year, the business conditions have been improving noticeably. They saw the advantages of an emerging market, which is a regional centre in the Balkans, with a large industrial tradition and skilled workforce, with many infrastructure projects being implemented. The concession for Vinča Waste Treatment Centre was awarded to SUEZ in September 2017. The agreement with VINCI AIRPORTS, stipulating concession for Belgrade airport, was signed in March 2018. These two represent the most notable successes of French companies in Serbia in the last two years. Other success stories I would like to mention are Tigar Tyres, a Michelin-based subsidiary in Pirot, which is one of Serbia’s largest exporters, employing more than 3,000 people. There is also the recent significant development of Hutchinson, the French company which came to Serbia just 3 years ago, and since then has doubled its production. Our colleagues from Hutchinson helped us when we were promoting the Serbian automotive sector in Paris recently, because they also believe in Serbia as an investment destination. Also, the arrival of about fifteen SMEs, which has not been covered by the media that much, is equally significant as it demonstrates that the French companies’ interest in the Serbian market is no longer associated only with large companies.

How many French companies currently operate in Serbia? What kind of feedback do you get from them about business conditions in Serbia?

– Over 120 companies are present in Serbia, employing around 12,000 people in a wide variety of sectors (automotive, agribusiness, digital…). In the last two years, France’s presence in Serbia has been growing – the French Tech Belgrade Initiative was launched in April 2019, which currently brings together 12 startup companies whose aim is to further develop and strengthen Serbia’s digital ecosystem. Last autumn, the famous French sports equipment distribution chain Decathlon came to Serbia, attracting a lot of attention from both the media and the general population. According to French companies, the reason why they are staying in the Serbian market are the advantages found in a market that is undergoing a full expansion and allows for regional presence. The advanatages also include Serbia’s big industrial tradition, skilled and adaptable workforce, better infrastructures and flexible labour legislation.

According to the available information, what was the value of the trade between Serbia and France last year? What did Serbia import the most and what did it export to France?

– The trade between the two countries amounted to 954.9 million euro in 2018, while this year, it exceeded one billion euros. Serbia’s imports from France are mechanical, electronic and electrical equipment, chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products and the products intended for the agricultural, food and transport sectors. On the other hand, France imported from Serbia mainly plastic and rubber products, agricultural and food products, vehicle bodies, trailers, but also equipment for the electronics and machine-building sectors in the previous year.

Are you satisfied with the cooperation with the Serbian institutions and their openness to the initiatives coming from business associations?

– Our Chamber successfully cooperates with the Republic of Serbia’s institutions, through several events a year with representatives of different ministries and state administration. On our 5th anniversary, as a result of our satisfaction with this cooperation, we gave President Aleksandar Vučić, then the Prime Minister of the Republic of Serbia, an award for his contribution to the development of bilateral relations. Our cooperation is still just as good. Last year, we organized meetings between our members, the director of the Serbian Tax Administration and the Minister of Labour, Employment, Veterans’ and Social Affairs, during which our members spoke with the representatives of the state institutions about laws, reforms and current affairs.

Which sectors have the biggest potential for attracting French investments?

– Serbia today has achieved a degree of political and economic stability that facilitates business operations. President Macron’s friendly visit to Belgrade in July also significantly contributed to the improvement of Serbia’s investment image. In this sense, we believe that Serbia’s image in France has finally begun to change and that companies are recognizing its potential. Serbia would greatly benefit from the expertise of French companies in various emerging sectors: infrastructure, machine-building and automotive industry, new technologies and digitization of the public sector, agriculture, food and environment. However, without a doubt, the infrastructure and automotive sectors are the most appealing to the French companies. The Chamber is actively promoting the two sectors in France, as well as the agriculture, agribusiness and digital sectors. We believe that now is the perfect time for Serbia in France, and we will do our best to use it.

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