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Trieste, 12 July 2017
Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
I want to share my pleasure to be here in Italy where the Treaty of Rome was signed 60 years ago. Being in Trieste makes the atmosphere even more symbolic! Having in mind Trieste's historical strategic importance for the trade between Western and Central Europe and South-East Europe, this is a very well chosen place to have today's business forum.
This forum brings together the public and private sector, local businesses and Foreign Direct Investors, academia and civil society, as well as representatives from Europe and – most importantly – from the region.
And we all share a common goal: to galvanise the Western Balkans’ economic growth by boosting business opportunities in the region.
Prosperity, jobs for young people, money in your pockets- is key to the future of your region. Imagine an innovative, full cutting-edge region, part of Europe, leading the way- with business and prosperity at its core. We can bring 80 000 new jobs to the region by 2025!
All countries of the Western Balkans need more investment to become prosperous future EU Member States. The private sector in the region has great and untapped potential to bring forward the economies.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Political and economic progress must go hand-in-hand. Firstly, building bridges between territories and businesses will bring economic benefits as we succeed to overcome political divides and build good neighbourly relations.
Secondly, political stability, rule of law and economic development are all part of the same picture. Across the Western Balkans boosting stability and the rule of law are the most powerful levers to improve the business environment.
You are serious business people, ready to compete, and to develop, and market your products, in a fair and future looking business environment. We must together therefore address the informal economy.
Foreign investors will hesitate to come to the region if they face unfair (illegal!) competition or political uncertainty. You, as business people, need to have assurance that the system will support you. This means modern, strong and independent institutions which deliver services and not only bills to businesses. This is how the enlargement process benefits your economies today already: paving as well the path to EU.
I have to underline again and again that the prospect of EU membership continues to drive transformation in your region. It has already brought trade and investment benefits to the region and vice versa: the Western Balkans is a crucial partner for us.
As a former business man, I am convinced that providing a business-friendly environment, boosting investments and promoting entrepreneurship grow regionally and afterwards globally is the best way to stimulate an economy and bring resilience. This is how we will create the 80 000 extra jobs.
I want to underline also that it is about political progress and good frameworks, but also that it is about concrete EU good will and support. We are the major investor in the region.
The EU not only supports policy and political reforms in the region but is also providing substantial financial assistance. In the last 10 years, the EU invested more than EUR 220 million to support SMEs in the region through its main financial instruments.
In addition just one hour ago I signed letters of intent with the European Investment Fund, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank Group for additional EUR 48 million of EU support which will develop and strengthen the capacity of the Western Balkans entrepreneurs and will offer them additional financing opportunities. Through this fresh EU financing we intend to leverage a total amount of investments which is 5 times bigger, thus making available an additional EUR 250 million for the private sector in the region.
With the new fresh financing we will also put special focus on young people as youth unemployment in the Balkan countries is in the range 29-57%. We expect to reach approximately 6000 companies.
We are also workin on physically connecting the Western Balkans. This is within the region and with the rest of Europe. This so called ‘Connectivity Agenda’. We intend to have allocated 1 billion euro worth of grants. With this we aim to leverage up to 3 billion euro of investments from the public and private sector in key energy, environment and transport investments by 2020.
At the Sava River, I put the first concrete for the bridge which links Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia (and therefore to the EU). It will cut by one hour driving between Sarajevo and Zagreb, Sarajevo and Belgrade, Sarajevo and Budapest.
Just a few weeks ago I visited a new electricity sub-station in Podgorica, which will contribute to the creation of the regional electricity market. I am confident that all this will contributes to the South-East Europe’s business prosperity.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Together, with the leathers, we also plan to endorse later today in the Summit the concept of a Western Balkans regional economic area.
I want specially to let you– as business people - know about this. It will create a welcoming business environment, stimulate entrepreneurship, build a knowledge-based society, provide good quality jobs, and ensure competitive markets. I believe it has the power to transform.
Over the past ten years, trade between the Western Balkans and the EU has more than doubled, reaching 44 billion EUR in 2016. The EU is the Western Balkans' largest trading partner, accounting for over 76% of the region's total trade. More and more European companies are including the Western Balkans in their value chains; this is the kind of business integration that helped create wealth and jobs in the last enlargement processes and will create the same effects in our neighbours.
By contrast, trade within the region has stagnated. There is a great untapped economic potential here, including your possibilities to create value chains with your neighbours who are close economically and physically. One of the main objectives of the Regional Economic Area is to remove those barriers that still exits to trade, business and investment between your countries.
Investors know that trade between the EU and the Western Balkans is already very liberalised, and that the progressive harmonisation of rules and standards will create even better conditions for doing business.
Individually, each actioned market is small. Together you represent almost 20 million people. With reform-oriented governments in office across the region we are at exactly the right time for a more business-driven approach. This is the regional economic approach for the Western Balkans, building on the “Berlin process".
Fellow business friends, I wish you a very successful event. I know it will be another stepping stone in making the region's private sector thrives, realizing its full potential. Together with us, you will be the basis for the prosperous development of the region.