1st South East European Ministerial Conference, 14 February 2013, Europe House, London. Assessing EU Enlargement in the Western Balkans: Progress and Challenges

Organised by International Business and Diplomatic Exchange and SEESOX South East European Studies at Oxford, St Anthony’s College, University of Oxford (www.ibde.org(www.sant.ox.ac.uk/seesox

Supported by Wyn River Limited

A very interesting, intelligent and balanced debate between government ministers, academics, financiers and investors covering such diverse topics as the Sovereign Debt Crisis, EU expansion, Central Banks and the Vienna Initiative 2.0, Turkey’s role, what can be learned from Greece, open society, the rule of law, enterprise and skill gaps and political and economic stability generally. There is no denying the tensions which still exist across South East Europe and the Western Balkans specifically, but all stakeholders seem to be adopting a very practical approach to doing business with their neighbours.  The British Government has an “Emerging Europe” initiative run by UK Trade & Investment to encourage UK businesses to consider exporting to a large and relatively untapped consumer base and to make use of excellent engineering skills and low labour costs in the UK’s own hunt for competitive advantage in a global marketplace. 

There was a lively discussion about whether the European Union has failed to bring anticipated reforms, wealth and stability to the region and whether it is losing popular support.  The rules of the European Union which Accession Candidate countries must adopt (such as Croatia, due to join the EU this July) offer best practice and create a level playing field not just in legislation but also physical border crossings, health and safety and labour mobility.  The central funds available from Brussels and Washington help to reduce poverty and finance road and other infrastructure upgrades which provide jobs and supports industry.  The private sector has a key role to co-invest and manage these new projects efficiently for an appropriate commercial reward.  However the demonstrations in Bulgaria in February 2013 over energy prices which led to the resignation of the Government show how effective regulation is essential where the State and private sector interact.  No safety net by the State for those with low income is bound to create social discontent when energy bills rise above the level of state pensions. 

I made the comment at the seminar that individual countries need a positive press to overcome rather negative sentiment that most British people and businesses have towards this region.  My company, Wyn River, works alongside organisations such as UKTI, IBDE, SEESOX and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to bring the merits of the region to the attention of potential investor candidates and help them to de-risk and finance their expansion.  But it is still the responsibility of governments to adopt the prudent policies, priorities and predictability needed to make their markets attractive for new long term FDI partners to work alongside their own high quality state companies and local SMEs.  Governments need to install effective and fair tax systems to finance a cost-effective public sector.  To use new technology such as e-customs and e-governance to eliminate “state to business” and “state to citizen” corruption windows.  There is no quick fix for these new democracies to reach full consensus on several key issues, but as this conference showed, new generations of smart politicians have the power and vision to lead the region to a new prosperity. 

Photo credit:  Alban Bytyci

 

The delegate list from the conference is available here 

Photographs of the conference speakers and delegates are available here 

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