Serbia’s president called on western Balkan countries to settle their differences and create a common market to attract badly needed foreign investment.
Armed conflict in the Balkans ended more than 18 years ago, but five of the states that emerged after the former Yugoslavia broke up – Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia – still have border disputes to settle.
All five, along with Albania, hope to join the European Union, which has called on them to settle their disputes before they join, but little progress has been made.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić told a business fair in the Bosnian town of Mostar the six need to work more closely to create a better investment climate. “Split into small states and even smaller markets, we have nothing to look and hope for. Our only chance to catch up with the rest of the world is in creating a much bigger market in the future,” Vučić said.
He said economic cooperation could also help build stability and peace in the region, where persistent ethnic tensions still block economic progress.
“Such a market could attract more investors, open bigger projects, create jobs and fuel growth and development,” Vučić said.
The idea of a Balkan common market, which means removing barriers to allow a free flow of trade and services, has been promoted by the Commission some time now.
Last June, the Commission said it hoped for a Western Balkans common market deal by 12 July 2018, on the occasion of a meeting in Italy with the leaders of the EU hopefuls and the top EU officials.
To create the market, the six countries need to lift barriers to the flow of goods and people, harmonise taxes and abolish fiscal charges, Vučić said. Such measures could attract up to 15 billion euros in investment in coming years, more than triple their current value, he said.
Our businessmen need it more than our politicians,” Vučić said – operating costs for companies whose trucks wait as long as 30 hours more than necessary to cross borders have increased by 7%.
But to create a common market, Belgrade would need to resolve all outstanding issues with Kosovo, among others. Little progress has been made there despite EU meditation — Belgrade still refuses to recognise Kosovo’s independence.
The idea of a common market has drawn a mixed response in the region. Some of the countries fear it would be dominated by Serbia.
“It would mean a lot for boosting economic ties,” said Pane Skrbić, a member of the European Association of Managers. “The businessmen have been erasing these borders much more easily than politicians.