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Ambassador Hougaard Gives Interview to Ekapija Online Portal

09.02.2018  10:20
  • Denmark is one of Serbia’s important trade partners. According to your data, what did the trade between Denmark and Serbia amount to last year? What did Serbia import the most and what did it export the most to Denmark?

I personally believe there is a lot of room for improving the trade relations. The reforms conducted can only boost those relations, creating more jobs and earnings for all involved. According to our data for 2016, Denmark’s exports of goods to Serbia was worth around 122 million Euro, while we imported Serbian goods in the value of around 52 million Euro.

When it comes to the type of goods imported / exported, we see most interest around general industrial machinery and equipment, machine parts and pharmaceuticals. Denmark has some of the strongest companies in that area, and we are pleased to see Serbia is taking part in it as well.

  • Are Danish investors interested in investing in Serbia and to what extent and how often do Danish businessmen turn to you for advice as to how to reach the Serbian market?

Danish investors are indeed getting more and more interested in Serbia. The economic reforms conducted so far in Serbia have had a good echo abroad, so we get a lot of requests from various industries.

The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a very active Trade Council and each mission has a Trade Advisor / Department. Danish companies are very inclined to use embassies as first point of contact when they examine a market or decide to make an investment.

  • How do you present Serbia as an investment destination to potential investors and how important in that sense is Danish Business Club?

We can do all the talking, but the best ’presentation’ is done by an actual investor. This is why we have set up Danish Business Club – to provide additional support and network to Danish companies already doing the business in Serbia or to those planning to enter the market.

If a Danish company wants to invest in Serbia, the best advice they can get is from well-established companies present here, such as Carlsberg, Grundfos, Novo Nordisk, Danfoss, Ergomade, Healthcare Europe etc. These six alone cover almost all corners of Serbia and have enough experience with the market.

  • In which fields can companies from the two countries establish cooperation?

I would say in all the fields, sky is the limit! Denmark’s economy is based on small and medium-size enterprizes. Many of them are niche companies, as they are aware they cannot compete with big, more economical players.

We have come a long way in exploring sustainability and green solutions – we are very patriotic about our environment and we take good care of it. Denmark is trying to phase-out coal consumption for energy production. We have excellent solutions for windmills, solar energy, waste-to-energy plants and technology.

We often say in Denmark – We are not so rich to waste anything! We therefore try to create energy from everything we can – wastewater, waste itself, biomass, biogas. I believe Serbia would greatly benefit from this technology, which does not necessarily have to be expensive or too advanced.

  • What are the biggest advantages of Serbia when it comes to attracting investments? What are its flaws and in which areas can it improve?

I would say Serbia is very attractive to investments and this is how we try to present it to potential new players in the market, but do not paint a pink image.

Some of the advantages we mention are hard-working and educated workforce, Government and local authorities support to the investors, proximity to Denmark and the same time zone, similar mentality and business acumen, various free trade agreements. Of course, there is much-talked labour force price-quality ratio, but I would not say this plays the crucial role for an investor. They are all here for the long run, so they have to take all the elements into consideration.

Some of the areas for improvement are definitely ’red tape’ – heavy and big bureaucracy. I am happy to hear digitalization is high on the Government’s agenda – it does not only mean you can find the data online, but it saves time for the people, it makes it more convenient and more transparent, which in turn reduces chances for corruption.

I am happy we took a small part in improving the speed of issuing building permits, as we facilitated a visit to Denmark with the exchange of best practice. This improvement alone brough about the advancement on Doing Business list.

  • How many Danish companies do currently do business in Serbia? According to your findings, how satisfied are they with their business activities in Serbia?

Approximately 40 Danish companies do business in Serbia, of various size. They seem to be very happy here – some are expanding production facilities, like Ergomade or Grundfos. Some are expanding the teams they are hiring, like NIRAS and COWI.

Some have been here for more than 20 years, like Velux, Danfoss, Novo Nordisk. Many present top companies in their field, like Carlsberg or DSV Logistics and Shipment. We really have an array of companies present here, and they are all here to stay!

They are pretty satisfied with their operations here, although they do mention big bureaucracy and lack of transparency in certain areas. No matter how different they are, they all stress the importance of rule of law and predictability of business environment. The foundation for those two is a dialogue between the public and private sector.

  • How present are Serbian companies in Denmark?

Not too present, I am afraid. We hope the situation will change as the country’s economy recovers. I believe Serbia has a lot to offer to Denmark.

  • Big Danish companies are very present in Serbia. How interesting is Serbia to small and medium companies, which are very developed in Denmark?

You have noticed well that Denmark’s SMEs sector is well developed. Around 1 milion people are employed by them, which is 2/3 of workforce. Also 39% of all the public procurements in Denmark are won by SMEs.

They are an extremely important player and employer in Denmark – people are not looking to the state for employment, but to such companies. It is therefore important to have a strategy for their development. Together with the impeccable rule of law and zero tolerance for corruption, an environment is created for such companies to thrive and compete among themselves.

I believe there is room for improvement in that area. Danish SMEs are naturally oriented towards neighbouring countries, such as Germany, Holland and other Nordics. It is our task to make Serbia relevant for them.

  • Representatives of DFA visited Serbia in November and announced that they were interested in expanding their business to our country. How applicable are Danish experiences in the agrarian field, in which your country is among the global leaders, in Serbia?

We had a very good visit by the Danish Farmers Abroad in November. The embassy helped them organize their stay in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was not their first time here, but they were interested to revisit the place and get to know it better. Some of them already operate in the Ukraine and Russia, so they are familiar with the mentality and business environment.

From what we could see during the visit, the Danish agro experiences are very applicable here – from genetic material to the technology of production and productivity. Let me say it again – we do not waste anything in Denmark, and I think this mindset should be planted all over the world!

I believe we can show how we make circular farms and how we use crops and animals in the most productive manner. The key characteristic of Danes is efficiency and I believe we have mastered it in many areas, not least agriculture. I think Serbia should make most of our experience in that area.

  • In 2017, the 100th anniversary of the establishment of regular diplomatic relations between Copenhagen and Belgrade was marked. How do you see the current state of economic and political relations of our two countries?

Denmark has always had good relations with Serbia. We do not necessarily have to agree about all matters, but the foundations of our relations are strong and both countries benefit from it.

  • As a member of the EU, Denmark actively supports Serbia on its way to joining the EU. How would you rate the results Serbia has made so far in that respect?

Denmark is a strong supporter of Serbia’s EU path, we believe you belong to the European family. It may often seem the conditions to join the EU are strict, but the idea behind them is to support the country in reaching the EU standards even before it joins the EU.

Once it takes places, that given country can fully enjoy the perks of the membership. Finally, the reforms conducted are beneficial by themselves, as they improve the society as a whole and increase the living standards for all the citizens.

A lot has been done already. Just look at opened the Negotiation Chapters and their progress. But more than just chapters, we have seen improvement – mostly through our contact with the Danish companies already present here.

I was especially pleased to hear that the Environment Ministry has been formed, because a lot needs to be done in that area. In my opinion, this is how one shows patriotism – by taking care of one’s own country and its resources. As mentioned before, rule of law and digitalization are two key horizontal issues which are, in my opinion, a precondition for all other areas.

  • What is cooperation between Serbia and Denmark like in other fields?

Cooperation is very good – we have just finished the celebration of 100 years of diplomatic relations between our two countries. Denmark has had numerous projects with Serbia, I will name just a few.

In the defence area, we have been a significant donor to the Serbian Army and the Defence Ministry. We have successfully implemented a development project „Fruits and berries“ in South Serbia where more than 800 jobs were created. We have taken part in the projects dealing with judicial reform, veterinary standards, media freedom, resettlement of refugees, ombudsman institution and local economic development.

  • Could we announce new activities of the Embassy?

In our work, we can say we have two tiers – one is trade and the other is culture and public diplomacy. We will keep working on connecting Danish and Serbian markets, and do our best to promote Denmark to the citizens in Serbia, either via exhibitions or concerts or any other activity.

The interview in Serbian is published here.