Conference on the future of Europe: The Western Balkan youth don’t differ from the EU youth, hear our voice

Author: Ardita Vejseli

In early spring the European Parliament, Commission and Council signed the Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE). The Conference offers a bottom-up perspective – inclusion of European citizens in discussions on the most pressing issues the European Union is facing, to further shape the union they want to live in. In the 2021 State of the Union address of the Commissioner, youth are envisaged as the runners and leaders of the Conference, as at the end of the day, a Union that is shaped and created today will affect the lives of generations to come. Even more so, the year 2022 was announced as the Year of European Youth, designating a whole year to focus on the needs of youth in a post COVID – 19 world and include young people in youth policymaking.

With these actions, high importance is given to citizens, deliberations and policymaking through a bottom-up perspective. However, although these actions are labelled as targeting the future of Europe (the continent) they nonetheless target only the future of the European Union, leaving behind a great chunk of the continent. The Western Balkans region was left behind from a rather crucial process in defining a Union in which they will, eventually, be part of in the future. Its youth was nowhere to be mentioned, although they are and will be direct beneficiaries of the regions integration and the development of European democracy as a whole.

Positive contributions from the Western Balkans

Common challenges affect both young people in the EU and the Western Balkans. The thematic priorities of the Conference such as European democracy, digital innovation and transformation, green transition, and education and youth are spheres where young people can truly contribute with their ideas. In many ways, discussions about such topics occur mainly between experts or politicians, leaving little space for youth to be involved. By organising deliberative events and, in a fast-developing technological world, creating online space for young citizens to express their opinions and knowledge, therefore applying the bottom-up perspective, further on stimulates civic and political participation which in the long term is beneficial for countries. Deliberative events in the Western Balkans region which were in line with the CoFoE were organized during 2020, specifically on the topic of digital policies and the internet. The deliberative events organized in all six WB countries showed that not only young people from this region are capable of truly contributing to a rather complex issue such as digital policies and the internet, but that the countries of the Western Balkans can indeed be part of such participatory exercises as the CoFoE.

Bearing in mind the challenging political situations happening across the WB region; the EU fatigue due to a prolonged and exhausting integration process; the non-involvement of the WB countries in the CoFoE; the somewhat critical situation in the EU itself; a group of EU enthusiasts deemed it crucial and timely to focus on what youth from the WB think about European democracy. However, it is not only to gather information on youth perception of European democracy but rather to bring the youth of the Western Balkans closer to the European Union and tighten the gap that has been created during the whole enlargement process. 14 young people were invited to take part in a deliberation group in Skopje in December, where they discussed and shared quite thoroughly their expectations, ideas and recommendations. After all, they don’t differ from the youth in the EU.

Youth of the EU vs…

In recent research, numbers show that 9 out of 10 young people are in favour of the EU and feel additional democratic changes must be made, while 8 out of 10 young people believe that particularly the CoFoE should lead to more democratic change in the EU. Particularly, before the official start of the CoFoE, a position paper by the European Youth Forum, a Brussels based youth umbrella organisation, called for meaningful diverse youth participation throughout the Conference as well as after, with youths perspectives being taken into consideration in all legislation and policy fields across EU institutions; and the existence of clear mechanisms that will follow up to the results from the Conference.

…youth of North Macedonia

                North Macedonia is one of the countries with the biggest brain drain in the world. There is a causality of high unemployment and brain drain, yet there are also other aspects that should not be undermined. Several factors trigger brain drain such as political, social, institutional and educational aspects. Lack of democracy in the country especially with the political turmoil that has been going on for almost a decade has further influenced this phenomenon. In addition, the ongoing long process of EU integration has somewhat put youth on the edge. In all this turmoil how do they understand European democracy and what does it mean for them?

For young people from North Macedonia, the idea of European democracy is, through a set of common values and ideas, to bring together countries that have been previously in war and work towards the same (European) goals. European democracy has a very symbolic meaning for the countries that are in the EU, and it shows the years-long struggle and tradition of the countries to preserve that democracy. Although European democracy is not lacking per se, and in the EU the concept of democracy is much more developed, still people feel estranged from EU institutions and this alludes to a high level of bureaucracy. In addition, not all EU member states have a functioning democratic system, especially when it comes to the principles of rule of law and protection of human rights. If this continues to happen systematically, it will degrade the achievements thus far but also dim the hope for the countries that have not developed a certain level of democracy. Young people believe that the deeply rooted corruption in institutions and their politicization truly affects them. With such non-professionalism and corruption, they cannot feel as if they are ‘European’.

In order to feel empowered and have a sense of belonging, young people perceive that the EU can support and fund projects for young people from all over Europe, including those who are not members of the EU. The exchange of ideas between young people, through the prism of European values, will help create a more inclusive Europe for other generations, and bridge the gap between young people from the EU and the Balkans.

The critical tone of young people is of immense importance for the development of the region and also the European Union. Youth do not see the European Union as a perfect project and are well aware of the difficulties it faces and the need for these difficulties and issues to be sorted out so it can have a further positive influence on the development of the region. The European Union needs to also continue nurturing the cooperation and bridge it has with the countries, and push for greater fulfilment of obligations from signed international agreements and implementation of crucial reforms for bettering the rule of law and democracy.

                The policy paper “Our common future – a Bottom-up perspective: Western Balkans’ youth on the Future of Europe”, which will be soon published, gives a rather broader perspective and insight on the position of young people from North Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Hercegovina, and explains in detail the situation in the Western Balkans in correlation with the CoFoE.

This analysis is part of the project titled “Enhancing the Role of the Western Balkans in the Future of Europe”, funded by the European Fund for the Balkans (EFB), in the frames of the BeeEFB Alumni Network.


Photo: European Parliament/Flickr

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