Andjelka Atanasković, Minister of Economy in the Government of the Republic of Serbia: The emphasis is on the transformation of the domestic industry

On this path, the Italian modern machinery industry certainly occupies an important place in the development segment of Serbia.

Stable and evolved relations between Serbia and Italy can only progress even more to become even better. In this interview, Andjelka Atanasković, Minister of Economy in the Government of the Republic of Serbia, spoke about that topic, as well as about the Italian-Serbian trade, the arrival of new Italian companies to Serbia, the Serbian production sector and young people building their careers in Serbia.

Anđelka Atanasković, Minister of Economy

The trade between Serbia and Italy continues to grow on the back of last year’s record numbers. Which economic sector/product ranks first in this trade?

Bilateral economic relations between Serbia and Italy are very good and evolved. Italy is the second most important external trade partner of Serbia and one of the largest foreign investors in our country. Trade and economic ties have been further boosted by the Serbian-Italian Strategic Partnership Agreement. Last year, the total external trade between Serbia and Italy amounted to 4.2 billion euros, which is 24% more than in 2020. Total exports amounted to 1.8 billion euros (a 29% jump compared to the previous year), while imports amounted to 2.3 billion euros (a 20% increase compared to 2020). This trade has been continuously growing and this year, or rather the in the first three months, the total trade between the two countries amounted to about 1.1 billion euros. In the same period, exports amounted to 496.1 million euros, while imports stood at 608.8 million euros. This is an excellent result given the difficult economic situation associated caused by the pandemic. We have a traditionally good economic partnership with Italy, while traditional economic sectors, namely the automotive industry, agriculture, the textile sector and clothing production, have the highest share in the trade between the two countries.

Italy is one of the biggest foreign investors in Serbia. Are new investments on the horizon and can we expect more Italian companies to come to Serbia?

True, Italy is one of the biggest investors in Serbia. The Italian economy is comprised of both large Italian companies, as well as numerous small and medium-sized enterprises. Serbia is an ideal destination for foreign direct investments, for many reasons, including access to international markets, geographical location, and free trade agreements. Recently, Serbia has been declared as the country that attracts the most foreign direct investments relative to the size of its economy, and this is yet another indicator that Serbia is economically stable and supports investors. Our Italian partners have recognized that. Negotiations are currently underway with Italian investors for two potential projects in the textile industry and metal processing sector, with a total value of over 20 million euros, which will create close to 220 new jobs.

Bilateral economic relations between Serbia and Italy are very good and evolved.

In addition, in terms of the Italian investments that were given state subsidies in Serbia, in the period from 2006 to date, Italian companies have invested 455 million euros and employed over 9,200 people. It is important to note that there are Italian investments that did not get state incentives or were part of a broader package of mutual obligations, such as the Fiat Joint Venture Agreement from 2008, and that data related to them are not provided here.

Italian companies which exhibited at this year’s Agricultural Fair in Novi Sad have shown a strong interest in Serbia’s agricultural sector, plant and livestock production. How much and in what way can Serbian production help them?

Agriculture and food industry provide substantial opportunities. 24 Italian companies participated in the 89th Agricultural Fair and have exhibited at the Italian booth. This speaks volumes about the importance and quality of economic cooperation between Serbia and Italy, as well as the potential of this segment, regardless of the circumstances in the agricultural sector caused by the Ukrainian crisis. The participation of Italian companies in the Agricultural Fair in Novi Sad has been traditionally good.

In the period from 2006 to date, Italian companies have invested 455 million euros.

It is very important to improve cooperation through joint projects and the implementation of innovative solutions that help achieve the goals of sustainable and green agricultural production. Knowledge transfer is very important in this area, through the application of new technologies in Italy that have given positive results in practice and the possibility of implementing this kind of precision agriculture in Serbia. The digital sector is also relevant, as a tool to encourage sustainable agricultural production in both countries, and therefore cooperation in this area is possible, especially since the IT sector in agriculture is very developed in Serbia.

Italy also leads in fruit and vegetable production. Bearing in mind that, is there a chance that Serbia will export some its fruits and vegetables to Italy?

Trade in agricultural products between Italy and Serbia expedited significantly during 2021, with slightly higher fruit exports recorded. Serbia is a leader in the export of several types of fruit and is known for its apples, one of the most important fruits in Serbia. However, Serbia imports apples from Italy in significant quantities, but we also export apples to Italy. Serbia is an important market for Italy, as food and supply chains are of strategic importance for both countries. However, regardless of the potential in this area, Serbia does import fruits and vegetables. This is a question of the open market, prices, transport, and conditions, so the possibilities for increasing exports are great for us.

Although Italian companies are very important investors for us, Italy is also a potential market for us due to adequate agro-ecological conditions, geographical proximity, food culture, etc. Vegetable production is growing and has become a very profitable branch, so it has great potential.

By applying good practice and exchanging experiences, both countries can benefit, primarily in production technologies. We are an inventive and creative people and our solutions are not sufficiently implemented which can be of use to Italian agriculture.

The machine-building sector in Italy is strong and machines are becoming more digital and more environmentally friendly. What can Serbia, in terms of the application of new technologies, learn from Italy?

The Serbian economy has been focusing on the development and implementation of digitalization, innovation, energy efficiency, development of renewable energy sources and achieving maximum environmental protection. We are also strategically committed to strengthening small and medium-sized companies. I would like to underline the transformation of domestic industry through using improved technological solutions and innovations aimed at enhancing technological knowledge, application of new technologies, modernization with the use of new equipment and networking with European associations and companies. On this path, the Italian modern machinery industry certainly occupies an important place in the development segment of Serbia.

The Serbian economy has been focusing on the development and implementation of digitalization.

Serbia wants to boost economic relations by intensifying cooperation in advanced production systems and technologies, especially mechatronics, robotics and industrial automation. According to official data, companies in Serbia largely import Italian metal processing machines and especially industrial robots, a segment where Italy is one of the global leaders. One of the ways to elevate the existing cooperation to a higher level is by having Serbian business people go on study visits to the Italian business community, to learn about the transfer of modern technologies.

You are advocating for young people to stay in Serbia and build their careers and lives here. What is the government doing regarding this and what is the plan for this year?

Young people are the driving force behind the development and future of every society and country. By nature, they are innovative, determined and eager to succeed, as well as achieve good results. For them, the key is to open the door to success, providing they get the opportunity to get a good education, improve their skills and apply in practice everything they have learned. We need to constantly invest in young people because this kind of investment has the greatest value.

Encouraging the development of youth entrepreneurship is one of the key mechanisms to support the affirmation of young people in the labour market, as it also contributes to the reduction of youth unemployment and solidifies their decision to stay in Serbia. Youth entrepreneurship creates employment opportunities for both young entrepreneurs and other young people who are working in their companies. In this context, it is important to mention that the doing business environment and supporting young people in their active participation in the labour market are both very affirmative.
According to the data of the Business Registers Agency, out of the total number of active small businesses in Serbia (290,688), 66,977 or 23.1% are owned by young people aged 18 to 35.
Programmes directly aimed at young people have greatly contributed to this. I would like to mention the programmes implemented by the Development Fund specifically for young people and women, the Startup Programme, the Entrepreneurship and Self-Employment Promotion Programme implemented by the Public Investment Management Office, where the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Serbia is the implementing partner, and the National Employment Service’s programmes, as well as other public-private programmes that support technological-innovative solutions. It is also important to mention state programmes such as My First Salary, the Law on Dual Education and the adoption of the Strategy for the Development of Startup Ecosystems.

Also, the Ministry of Economy has recognized the capacity of women’s and youth entrepreneurship as an important factor in the development of the Serbian economy, and hence launched the Entrepreneurship Development Programme for Financial Support to Women and Youth, to assist in their first and riskiest year of business. We all need to encourage everyone who is thinking of starting their own business, to become the wind in their sails and to motivate them through personal example.

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