The Balkans: A Bright Future Ahead
President of SBE
Thank you for inviting me to address the Association of Balkan Chambers. It is a great opportunity for me, as the President of SBE, the leading in Northern Greece association of manufacturing firms with over 400 firms and associations as members, to address such an influential audience at such an important juncture for our common Balkan region. If I may start with some figures of the export performance of Northern Greece’s regions, where most of SVE’s members originate from, in the 2017-2021 period:
- 6 % of the exports of the region of Western Macedonia,
- 32 % of the exports of the region of Central Macedonia,
- 3 % percent of the region of Epirus,
- and 22.3 of the exports of the region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace,
were directed to the neighboring Balkan countries. These figures will give you a good idea of the level of commitment of SVE, and of its members, to our common Balkan future.
Just a little over three weeks ago SVE held its 7th Thessaloniki Summit with the theme of “South East Europe’s moment: chartering a new course of prosperity and stability”.
Not only from EU Commissioner Margaritis Shinas but also from other knowledgeable participants the message was loud and clear: the Western Balkans due to the war in Ukraine have a unique opportunity to advance their EU accession process. In addition, EU funding is increasingly available to complete the road and rail network, thus bringing our whole region closer together as well as with the rest of Europe. And to cap it all, the need of the EU to de-risk itself from value chain dependencies that may yet prove to be unreliable, makes all our countries attractive investment destinations: both for the manufacture of a wide range of products as well as for the extraction of strategically important raw materials.
I would thus argue that the countries of the Western Balkans today have an equivalent opportunity that Greece, Portugal and Spain had back in the in the 1980’s. These three Southern European countries as they escaped from political authoritarianism, the then European Community, together with the United States to be sure, were keen to anchor them in the Western Alliance, by boosting their economies and offering them, in addition to the NATO membership they already had, membership to the EC. The same opportunity, as we all know, was offered to the countries of Central & Eastern Europe in the 1990’s, an opportunity grasped by Bulgaria and Romania, to Turkey and now to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. As with the original EC expansion entrants the deal remains the same: fealty to democratic values as well as to the geopolitical orientation of the EU.
I also want to stress that the realization of this opportunity, of the completion of the EU accession process in the Balkans, for Greece, not only politically but also economically, would also be a seminal point for its own European vocation. No doubt this is the reason why the accession process of the Western Balkans was initiated during an EU Greek Presidency twenty years ago, in 2003, in the close-by Halkidiki peninsula, which I am sure you all know and appreciate.
The complete participation of the region to the EU would mean that Greece, just like all other EU member countries, would be surrounded by fellow EU member states, and thus enjoy the benefit of economies of scale in its export of products and services, the transport costs of its exports will decline thus improving their cost competitiveness and its overall status as an investment destination will be enhanced. In a virtuous circle such an expansion of opportunities will make it domestically easier to implement those reforms that would enhance the international competitiveness of the Greek economy – a vital goal considering that failure to render the Greek economy internationally competitive brought about a severe fiscal crisis and thus a nearly-decade long economic contraction of war-like proportions.
Considering all of the above, I see as our collective responsibility, through our business associational activity, to be active members of our respective domestic coalitions, that would push for the completion process of the EU accession process in our region: whether these coalitions are to be found in countries which are already members of the EU or in countries of our region which have yet to EU become members. Those of us active in EU member countries must help ensure that our governments do not flag in their efforts to advance, in Brussels and in the powerful chancelleries of Europe, the membership prospects of those who are yet to become members. Those of us active in non-EU member countries of our region, must help insure that their governments remain constant and persistent in their EU accession efforts and are not distracted from domestic reasons and short terms gains in the international arena.
The other aspect where I believe we should all work together is in upgrading our individual and thus collective performance in a number of key indicators and thus cease being the laggard region within Europe. As we are all painfully aware we are here in the Balkans, singly and collectively, at the bottom of the EU league in terms of corruption, the size of the gray, untaxed economy, the effectiveness of our justice systems, the quality of our public education, the degree of innovation of our economies, the state of some of our key infrastructures, particularly with regard to our railway systems and, because this underperformance affects wealth generation, in the level of affluence of our populations.
I do not think that we should reconcile ourselves to this underperformance. Nor do I believe that we should content ourselves because, within our region, x or y country maybe doing a bit better than its regional neighbors in this or that indicator.
On the contrary we should systematically reflect on the causes of this underperformance, learn from each other’s successes and failures and develop reform agendas and action plans that can enjoy region-wide applicability. Relatedly, we as SVE are the local partner in Greece of the internationally recognized IMD World Competitiveness Index, so I believe we have valuable know-how to contribute to such a region-wide thinking. Thinking undertaken by business associations and other social partners, such as the trade union movement, the non-profit sector, the academic community, on how our countries can become more internationally competitive.
So, in conclusion I strongly believe that we have a bright future ahead of us here in the Balkans if, first, we collectively, and not least through our business associational activity, work together to ensure that we all become members of the same European Union. And, second, if work together to build, singly and collectively, better governed societies and economies in our common Balkan region.