INTERVIEW/Eric Stewart (AMRO): US - 11th largest investor in Romania, but America likes to be first, lots to be done

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The Government is the main promoter of Romania, because American investors look at taxes, stability, predictability and efficiency. while competition between the countries in the region is fierce, Eric Stewart, President of the American Romanian Business Council (AMRO), told an AGERPRES interview.

He claims that there are investment opportunities for American companies in defence, energy, agriculture and healthcare, while the US administration will pivot towards Europe.

The President of AMRO also announced that the organization will organize an economic mission to Romania with 10-12 "household" American companies participating, some being already investors in Romania looking for reinvestment opportunities.

In what regards the elimination of visas for Romanians, the head of AMRO believes 2017 is the best year to request it to the Trump Administration as it is a non-electoral year.

AGERPRES: I know that next month there will be a business meeting and that there will be some major companies, can you tell us at least from what field they will be?

Eric Stewart: So we'll probably bring anywhere from 10 to 12 large American companies, a lot of them will be current investors already here doing business. Some of the current investors will be considering reinvestments which are very important.

AGERPRES: And some new names?

Eric Stewart: Yes, sure. I can't say yet who, but if you look at the list of companies that are members of AMRO, a lot of those companies there are among them. The new ones I can't say yet as they're still somewhat confidential, but I think you'll see they are all big household name companies who are very serious about Romania. I think once the Trump administration gets up and running, which you know — it's only day 27, we really hope to push for having a much more robust economic component of the relationship. Strategic, military, those have been very strong, but we need to also ake the economic and commercial [strong] . And part of that is also encouraging Romanian companies to come to the United States as well, which is part of Trump's plan.

AGERPRES: American investments in Romania are not very great, how can we increase them?

Eric Stewart: You know that the US is the 11th largest investor in Romania, which is a position in which we do not want to be, as you probably know America likes to be first and so we're far away from first and we have a lot of work to do. We still continue to have significant investments, but not at the potential we would like to see, so part of my meetings today with the Government was to ask them specifically — what are your plans for this new Government and where are opportunities for American companies to do more business. Some of those areas where we could invest more would be defence, obviously, as the Government is raising their spending to 2 percent of the GDP. I think there would continually be opportunities in energy, agriculture and healthcare. Those are the areas where we think there's the greatest opportunities.

AGERPRES: What do you think is the main obstacles facing the American companies trying to invest in Romania?

Eric Stewart: The main obstacle is, honestly, competition. American companies, when they want to invest, they have options for 200 countries around the world that they're taking a look at for conditions for investments. That's part of the issue. You've got to compete and do it aggressively. Until recently, the Government of Romania really didn't have an investment promotion agency. Now, very recently, in the last couple of years they have founded one and made it more robust, but my hope is that they make it even more robust .

I had a meeting yesterday (e.n. — February 15) with the Minister of Economy and he is now also minister for Business Environment, he has two portfolios from what I understand, for the time being. And I encouraged him to come promote Romania, and we can help promote Romania, it's part of our mission in Washington. But the government needs to help us do that as well, because they're the number one seller for Romania. Competition is tough, you have Poland, you have Hungary, you have Bulgaria, lots of countries in the region where they're looking at size, they're looking at taxes, they're looking at stability, they're looking at predictability, they're looking at efficiency. And you know, these are things Romania is working on, but it's not the kind of thing where you fix it and it's done, it's a constant fix. This is where we see some of the biggest obstacles. And distance too. There is a significant distance between our countries.

AGERPRES: What are the AMRO recommendations for future priorities in the bilateral economic relation?

Eric Stewart: So my plans are, when we come back to bring a business mission in March that we will unveil, we will announce a roadmap that we're going to propose, we're going to hand a roadmap to President Trump, we're going to hand a roadmap to Prime Minister Grindeanu and hope that this is what the Governments will focus on, but I think that some of the areas where we really want to see more engagement are missions. We want to see more missions come to the United States, we want to bring more missions to Romania. That's one thing we want to see: greater interaction. It's very normal for ambassadors to promote their countries and to work together, and for governments to promote their countries.
We want to work towards helping the companies that are here become ambassadors for Romania. Because these companies are here, they're invested, they're happy, things are going well. We should use that relationship to encourage other companies to do business in Romania. That would be part of our strategy to work with both governments. But, right now, because the Trump administration is so brand new and they don't have all the players in place, it's difficult to have much support on the US side of things — they don't even have a Commerce Secretary yet, so we have to get the political in place first, but that would be a large part of our plans to really lobby both governments to put more emphasis on this relationship. With the Romanian projection of the GDP being one of the highest in Europe, it makes sense for us to perform here.

AGERPRES: Do you think there's a danger to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) given the policies of the Trump Administration?

Erica Stewart: Yes, to be canceled, absolutely. Obviously TPP has been broken off, the President said he wants a new and improved NAFTA, so we've seen clearly what the President's intentions are in some of those areas. I haven't heard a lot specifically about Europe and what the fate of the TTIP will be. TTIP of itself is very difficult in negotiation. I think some of the business groups in Washington, myself included, will encourage that negotiation to continue. The Trump Administration has said, there are people in the administration that said they are interested in negotiating a bilateral with the British, with the UK. Well, that's fine, but it's going to take some time for them to fully separate, obviously, from the European Union and obviously that will impact negotiations as well, but in my opinion, even if we do, if we negotiate something that is not necessarily all-encompassing and covers every issue of trade, but is basic and zeroes our cares and we agree on areas of harmonized regulations and standards. If we negotiate a minimal agreement, it can have billions of dollars of impact, which can impact on the lives of Americans and Europeans.

The encouragement I will be giving from our business council to the Trump Administration and to the Europeans as well will be: don't give up, please don't give up, do not throw this agreement out because a lot of work has been put in. And my opinion is that we will see more of a pivot of the Trump Administration towards Europe. The Obama Administration had pivoted heavily towards Asia. I wouldn't be surprised if the Trump Administration pivots to Europe. But again, right now we do not have a US trade representative, we do not have a Commerce Secretary, it's really difficult for them to push a real strategy plan at this point.

AGERPRES: In that respect, do you think it's better for Romania that a Republican is in the White House?

Eric Stewart: It's a little unfair for me to answer because I worked for President Bush and I spent a lot of time in Romania, I made many many visits to Bucharest during my time with the US Government and working for President Bush and at that time Romania and Central Europe was a huge focus because the countries were joining NATO, were joining the European Union. There was a lot of potential growth here as well, as you all were developing market economies in this part of the world. And again, clearly the Obama Administration have focused towards Asia. A little bit of the issue is that in the past ten years Romania, Poland, countries in this region have sort of grown up, you've become European, very integrated. There's a lot less aid, a lot less of the US giving money, a lot less programs, because you've grown to such a high level that those things are not necessary as they were in the past when you were a very young market economy.

I can't say for sure what the plans are for the Trump Administration, because they're so new, but my opinion is that you have a cabinet that has been filled with generals and generals know what Romania does for the United States and with the United States and they know that they are very good friends with the United States. I know a lot of congressmen that are in Cabinet positions, a lot of them are very aware of what Romania does for the US. I'm optimistic that we could have a really strong partnership and a bilateral strengthening of the relationship under this administration which I think will really focus very much on military-political, of course, but very much on the commercial component.

AGERPRES: Do you think there is a chance for visas for Romanians be lifted soon?

Eric Stewart: Soon? Probably not soon. I think, in my opinion, the issue is not about Romania, it's not about Poland, it's not about the countries that are outside the Visa Waiver program, it's about the program itself. There are a lot of members of Congress that don't like the program itself, so the idea of adding more to something you don't like is very difficult. I truthfully don't think the Trump Administration has a position on this issue at this time, I think it's too early for them to know where they stand on this and where the Homeland Secretary will come down on this issue. It's something that if the Romanians want to make this a key component of the bilateral relationship and one of the asks, they should do it, they should do it early, because 2017 will be the best year to get anybody's ration down, because come 2018, our congressmen are starting to run for re-election, again. So this is a non-election year, so that is critical, but it will have to be the Romanians and the Poles coming to the US and saying: "this is a big priority for us" and they need to say that soon.

AGERPRES: Concretely, what is the mission of AMRO for local companies?

Eric Stewart: A very important component for us, as an organization, is when ministers, the President, the Prime Minister come to Washington, we host them, we create a dialogue space for them to have discussions with the business community, but also I spent a lot of time working with our Government, with our White House, our Commerce [Dept.], State [Dept.], Energy [Dept.] and our Congress, making sure they understand how important this relationship is — the US — Romanian relationship — and making sure they understand the priorities. We want to also be supportive of and help Romanian companies take a look at the US market, because that would help us balance the relationship in a healthy way. I think it would take some time for Romanian companies — I'm aware the US is huge, it's big, where do I begin — but the US Government now has some tools to help those companies and we really want to promote and help Romanian companies have success in the US, because that helps to further deepen our friendship. AGERPRES/(RO — author: Constantin Balaban, editor: Mariana Nica; EN — editor: Razvan-Adrian Pandea)

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