Knitting Regions: How Bucharest Might Bring Belgrade Closer

Bucharest has recently unveiled plans to enhance its neighborhood relations with Belgrade in the form of helping Serbia in its aspirations towards joining the 3 Seas Initiative (3SI).

Danube river near the Serbian city of Donji Milanovac in the Iron Gates also known as Djerdap which are the Danube gorges a natural symbol of the border between Serbia and Romania.
The Danube River near the Serbian city of Donji Milanovac, which forms a natural symbol of the border between Serbia and Romania. Photo: iStock.com / nikola19

Throughout the ages, Romania has kept the Balkan nations and states close, maintained good neighborhood relations, and often served as a strong regional ally, mediator, or leader. Without reiterating the long and storied history, Romania’s approach has been and still is marked by positive interlinkages within the larger area, particularly concerning Serbia, its neighbor across the Danube.

This bond was further strengthened in April 2023 during the Serbia-Romania Business and Investment Forum held in Belgrade. This was a multilateral meeting co-organized by CCIR (the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Romania) and CCIAT (Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture of Timiș – Romania’s region bordering with Serbia), alongside their Serbian counterparts and almost 100 major companies from both sides.

Strengthening the ties that bind

While it might seem like one of many events dedicated to fostering bilateral relations between the two states, what peaked everyone’s attention were the declarations that revolved around the idea of “strengthening international economic and commercial relations.” Particularly the fact that “Romania is engaged in achieving closer cooperation with Serbian partners within the Association of Balkan Chambers (ABC) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation of the Black Sea (OCCEN)” as part of a stronger push to enhance its participation in international organizations, claims Mihai Daraban, President of CCIR.

Meanwhile, the Serbian authorities made it clear that “it is very important to develop an intensive collaboration with the CCIR, considering the active involvement of this organization in European profile structures.” More noteworthy is the referral towards “the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), a platform we want to join with the support of our Romanian colleagues”, making an official “request to facilitate Serbia’s access to this platform, knowing very well the very important role of CCIR within the 3SI”, particularly as it “can enhance bilateral relations with other member states, which can lead to better understanding and cooperation… especially in energy security or digital connectivity,” said Mihailo Vesović, Director Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

All these remarks came after several similar discussions surrounding inter-regional cooperation and integration in pan-European structures during a multilateral meeting hosted by CCIR in Bucharest for the development of the Carpathian Convention. Although such events do not bring together the heads of state or ministries, they still showcase a (continuous) strong voicing of the private sector’s desires to join European structures, hopefully spilling over into other actions or the community at large.

Waiting for tangible results

Nonetheless, no matter how often these ideas are presented, what remains to be seen is how they will transcend economic boundaries and bring tangible results. Even though Romania is more than capable of guiding Serbia in its adhesion pathways, especially given its recent history of joining the EU and then the 3SI, Belgrade holds the reins for its transition procedures and undertaking necessary reforms. This is if the latter’s representatives seek to follow through with the Chamber of Commerce’s declarations and business aspirations.

Meanwhile, until these integratory declarations evolve into concrete actions at the national and international levels, there still are several sectors where Romanian-Serbian relations thrive, bringing tangible results worthy of further development. Out of all the untapped potential, both within the Balkans sphere and towards Serbia, it is the business sector that shows great promise, especially as commercial exchanges with the latter constantly registered a yearly growth of roughly 10% (Bucharest often being the 3rd/4th partner for Belgrade).

Since last year alone, the value of exchanges surpassed EUR 2.6 bln EUR (with a EUR 400 mln positive export balance for Romania), followed by a doubling of services provided up to the EUR 200 mln mark. Given this, it is evident that there is room for improvement. Particularly, as just the CCIAT arranged over 90 meetings last year, it needed to sustain the regional operations of around half of the approximately 1,000 Serbian companies operating in Romania (and vice-versa).

The motivation to finish the deal

It is clear that cooperation on all levels will most likely continue to grow, especially when it comes to infrastructure and commercial matters, as there are plentiful joint programs under implementation. Some of these include Danube River protection, renovation of the Iron Gates, construction of new energy hubs, highways, and border crossings, and socio-cultural promotion. Most of these projects are EU-funded, with the Interreg IPA alone offering over EUR 87 mln to Romanian-Serbian projects.

The current realities are propped up by the private sector, meaning that there is a long road ahead when it comes to Belgrade’s accession, firstly into the EU and then 3SI. Bucharest is happy to lend a helping hand, but this must be matched with Belgrade’s motivation to switch from EU candidate to EU member.

Christopher Radovici

is a Ph.D. student at the Bucharest University of Economics, former Westminster graduate, specializing in CEE and EU Neighborhood affairs, involved in several cross-disciplinary research projects across Europe and with a series of active publications and conference participations in the field of IR, FP and Macroeconomics. Private and Civil Society - Duke of Edinburgh's International Award Gold finalist, alumni of Alpbach, Aspen and SUSI, actively contributing to various civil society organization and think-tanks in the Danube Region, while also having been the founder of a social entrepreneurship start-up.

Latest from Business