On Tuesday, October 24th, a conference titled “Challenges and Opportunities for Growth and Development” was held in Belgrade, organized by the Libertarian Club Libek.

The general conclusion of the two thematic panels of the conference was that Serbia possesses numerous advantages that can be strategically significant for its citizens and economy, especially in uncertain economic times.

The first panel, “Global Trade System and Supply Chains”, dealt with challenges related to the disruption and disturbance of various supply chains worldwide. During the conference, some of the key advantages that Serbia possesses in addressing these challenges were highlighted. One such advantage is the growing number of trade agreements that have already been signed or are planned for the near future.

Serbia, China, and the EU – Actively but cautiously with bigger players

Commenting on the recent free trade agreement between Serbia and China, Professor Pregrad Bjelić from the Faculty of Economics noted that Serbia is increasingly signing such agreements. He emphasized the need to consider the differences in negotiation capabilities between small and large countries and economies while making sure not to compromise Serbia’s weaknesses.

One useful example is Serbia’s agreement with the EU on the cumulation of origin in the Euro-Mediterranean area, which allows the import of raw materials from the EU, EFTA, CEFTA, and potentially Mediterranean countries, with the possibility to process and export them to more than thirty countries. This expands export capacity, and such an agreement exists only between Serbia and the EU.

The Stabilization and Association Agreement not only led to trade liberalization but also paved the way for Serbia’s deeper integration and membership in the European integration.

This was underscored by Mihailo Vesović, Director of the Department for Strategic Analysis, Services, and Internationalization at the Serbian Chamber of Commerce (PKS), who stated that Serbia’s position in terms of political and economic interests is unequivocally within Europe. He pointed out that the domestic economy is open, with a significant number of free trade agreements, but our market can function successfully only as part of a broader market, primarily the common European market.

Serbia is already subject to many EU policies, such as decarbonization and the establishment of a circular economy, not in a binding or direct way but more indirectly, emphasized Amalija Pavić, Deputy Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Serbia (AmCham). An example of this influence is the financing and credit system, where an increasing number of European banks include decarbonization and green transition as key success indicators in their business with clients.

Critical Mineral Resources – Lithium as Serbia’s Strategic Advantage

Another key strategic advantage that Serbia possesses is the significant quantity of critical mineral resources, such as lithium. These resources are now the basis for building a new sector and production chain for electromobility in Europe and worldwide, from battery production to electric vehicles.

Mihailo Vesović believes that Serbia should leverage its resources as a comparative advantage available to it to keep pace with technological changes in Europe and the world. For Serbia, these resources are lithium and the Danube as a water resource. In this sense, the education sector is particularly significant as a link to the economy, involving the new generations specializing in these areas.

The European Union is also a significant partner in the area of critical mineral resources. This year, the Critical Raw Materials Regulation was adopted, which includes partnerships with third countries, including Serbia. Decarbonization cannot be addressed independently but through collaboration with many partners, as Vesović reminded.

The “Future of Mobility” Panel – How to Attract Quality Investments?

The second panel focused on trends in the automotive industry affecting Serbia, the position of companies in the context of disruptions in globalization, the production of batteries for electric vehicles, and other opportunities for improving the mobility sector in Serbia.

On the “Future of Mobility” panel, participants included Sasha Cioringa, CEO of Continental Automotive Serbia, Aleksandar Ljubić, Executive Director of the Foreign Investors Council, and Filip Mitrović, a mobility specialist from the National Association of Autonomous and Electric Vehicles and the 360 Mobility project.

Sasha Cioringa noted that today’s cars require intelligence and electronic products; they require more engineers and fewer assembly line workers. That’s why Continental is already a globalized company, as software can be developed in one country, hardware in another, the mechanical part can be done in a third, testing in a fourth country, and production in Asia. He emphasized that Serbia provides quality engineers.

Cioringa believes that Serbia should attract at least one more car manufacturer in the future, as this would bring new knowledge, technology, and experience. It’s an opportunity for the country to pioneer in areas it hasn’t been before, and Serbia can adapt easily to new concepts, he explained. Ljubić agreed, highlighting Continental as an excellent example of the kind of companies that should be looked upon.

At the beginning of his presentation, Aleksandar Ljubić pointed out that the Serbian economy is already quite globalized, with large foreign multinational companies exporting products manufactured in Serbia, primarily to the EU market. He particularly highlighted Fiat (Stellantis) as an excellent example of Serbia’s positioning as an automobile manufacturer.

The car production process is highly specific and involves not only production and technology but also the educational system and the history of automobile production. This has allowed Serbia to establish itself on the map of countries that are currently serious players in Europe in the automotive industry, Ljubić concluded.

Cioringa emphasized that over the next ten years, it is crucial for the automotive industry to connect vehicles with each other. The onset of autonomous driving is already affecting safety, as vehicles are becoming smarter and can make decisions, potentially avoiding accidents. Risks always exist, he said, but automation can help avoid collisions by knowing what’s happening at intersections minutes before they occur.

This view was shared by Ljubić, who added that when discussing electric cars, there is a need to change the way of thinking, as they are no longer the same means of transportation.

Mitrović agreed and stressed that major car manufacturers are now transforming into mobility service providers. They are thinking about making mobility available, not just for passenger cars but for all types of mobility, including walking, micro-mobility, individual mobility, and even rail transport, which is undoubtedly greener and more sustainable. He explained that car manufacturers are becoming energy traders in this regard.

“Investors in the automotive industry, as well as in other industries, have one requirement, and that is predictability. Every investor likes it to be boring, without any surprises, good or bad, and that’s how they operate,” emphasized Ljubić.

Cioringa noted that autonomous vehicles are ready for deployment, but the challenges lie in older vehicles, legislation, and the lack of infrastructure.

The panelists also discussed batteries for electric vehicles, with Mitrović highlighting that today’s batteries are extremely safe, coming with warranties of eight or even ten years, or up to 200,000 kilometers of driving. There are plans for further battery treatment, which involves various cycles, finding new applications, and ultimately recycling. According to recent research from the United States, up to 96% of the materials used in batteries can be recycled, he observed.

Mitrović also addressed Net Zero missions for 2030, with plans to strengthen charging infrastructure for electric vehicles in the coming years, aiming to equalize it with the infrastructure available for internal combustion engine vehicles. He raised the question of the chemical composition of batteries, considering the different mixtures used in the manufacturing process, which he saw as a political and strategic decision.

The conference brought together representatives from the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, the diplomatic corps, domestic and foreign companies, the business community, civil society organizations, as well as representatives of international organizations, development agencies, and media outlets.

With this conference, Libek reaffirmed its commitment to promoting the values and principles of the free market, economic and trade liberalization, and enhancing education on the key challenges and advantages that Serbia faces.