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Balkan Leadership Conference: Session III

Skopje, North Macedonia—The third and final session of the 2023 Balkan Leadership Conference was “Policies and Projects to Foster Regional Cooperation in Youth and EU Integration.”

The one-day international conference took place on October 14, 2023, at the DoubleTree by Hilton Skopje hotel.

It was organized by the Europe-Middle East branch of UPF in partnership with the Podgorica Club, an organization founded in 2019 by former presidents of Southeast Europe.

For the third session, the moderator was Ejona Icka, the secretary general for UPF in Kosovo.

Naumche Mojsovski, the director of the Agency of Youth and Sport, North Macedonia, said the agency focuses on developing comprehensive bilateral relations with Southeast European countries, as well as on multilateral processes and activities supported by, among others, the Council of Europe and UNESCO in the field of sports and young people. 

The Berlin Process, which was set up in 2014 as a platform for high-level cooperation between official representatives of six Western Balkan nations, was a milestone, Mr. Mojsovski said. It involves the EU institutions, international financial institutions and Western Balkan civil society, the Regional Youth Cooperation Office and businesses. Young people are enabled to explain their positions on different platforms, discuss experiences and take part in decision-making. A clear policy regarding the development of youth infrastructure is now in place.

Hon. Fisnike Bekteshi Shaqiri, a member of North Macedonia’s parliament, said that investing in youth is investing in the present and in the future.  Initiatives to improve the life and future opportunities of young people must be supported.  The Western Balkan region must be made attractive and inclusive so that young people can stay in their countries and realize their ambitions, despite the many challenges they face today, such as high unemployment rates, exclusion and discrimination. The EU stands behind many initiatives that improve the life and future possibilities for youth.

Many young people have emigrated to EU countries, but jobs should be created for them in the Western Balkans. They should be helped to set up and develop their own businesses, to acquire new skills by training, and to study at universities abroad. They should be encouraged to participate in every aspect of society, in policy design and civil activism, so that they take their future in their hands.

Albert Hani, the secretary general of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office, said that RYCO is linked to the Berlin Process. When the EU opened its doors to the Western Balkans, young people from the region demanded to participate in policymaking. These young people, by their example of cooperating, communicating, and coordinating freely beyond their barriers, have laid the groundwork for politicians’ improved cooperation and decision-making. In this time of wars and conflicts, not only the Western Balkan countries need their example but also the rest of Europe.  

RYCO, an independently functioning institutional mechanism founded by the Western Balkans’ six participants (W6), takes care of young people’s needs, concerns, and desires and helps them to participate in political discussions.  Youth are the ones who are opening the doors for European values to enter the Western Balkans, Mr. Hani said. Therefore, they should be listened to at all levels of society.

Aleksandar Ružin, former adviser to the prime minister of North Macedonia, said that Western Balkan youth are not satisfied with their social status and unfavorable position in the labor market. On the whole, unemployment figures among young people in the Western Balkans are well above figures in the EU. The unfavorable status of young people, economic, social, and institutional problems, as well as corruption and the lack of trust in the institutions, motivate many young people to emigrate. Between 2012 and 2022, about 155,000 left their countries.

In 2018, the EU set up a new strategy for the period 2019-2027 to improve young people’s prospects and encourage them to participate in civil and democratic life. The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) agreed that regional cooperation in the Western Balkans is essential for the enlargement process. Mr. Ružin explained that the program for the European Youth Capital 2022 events in Tirana, Albania, included the promotion of volunteering, strengthening youth organizations, trading networks, synergies among people from the region and from the entire Europe region.

Katerina Jakimovska, a senior event officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, said that, contrary to the general belief that young people are interested only in having fun and shouldn’t take part in political decision-making, nowadays the youth are awakening and growing increasingly concerned about the present and their future. However, many young people from the Western Balkans have decided to build their future abroad and have turned their backs on their home countries. The war in Ukraine, the new conflict in Israel, and recent events in Kosovo show that the road to peace is still long.

Ms. Jakimovska wondered whether it is the fate of the Western Balkans to live with nationalism, hatred, tensions, violence, and prejudice. The way to diminish nationalism is education, integration, open minds and hearts looking to the future rather than dwelling in the past. She mentioned the European Year of Skills, which started in May, saying that the Western Balkans also should attract people from outside the EU who have needed skills.

Dona Kosturanova, the director for North Macedonia of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, said that youth participation is more important than ever, because there are fewer and fewer young people in the Western Balkans, due to decreasing birth rates and increasing emigration. The long-term consequences of the brain drain need to be considered, she said. The Westminster Foundation, a non-departmental public body set up in the United Kingdom to support democratic institutions overseas, has calculated how much emigration costs for countries. Emigrated young people are unlikely to return to their countries of origin.

Young people are the reflection of the societies where they have grown up, she said. We therefore have pessimistic youngsters, cynical about democracy and institutions. Stagnation, blockades, and challenges impact even young people’s optimism and outlooks toward EU accession.

She recommended that strategies for Western Balkan youth should be further elaborated and financially supported. Education of democratic and civic values should be provided. Quality of life, economic standards, anti-corruption, and justice should not be taken lightly, as all of these matter, not only for the population in general but also especially for young people.

Dr. Michael Balcomb, the UPF senior adviser for Europe and the Middle East, offered closing remarks. Change cannot be a precondition of relationships, he said; it comes through relationships, through partnerships. The UK fell out of love with the EU because the British felt that the EU should change to be more like Britain, while Brussels wanted the UK to become more continental. If 2030 has been set as a goal for European integration, then action and development are needed today.

Sixty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that our scientific and technological capabilities have far outrun our spiritual capacities. One year earlier, UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld said that he saw no hope for the future of humanity without a spiritual revolution.

At the inauguration of UPF 18 years ago, its founder said that peace will never come as long as the people entrusted with it are not at peace with themselves, their families or their neighbors. Spiritual values here do not refer to a particular creed, but rather to the values that make us truly human, such as dignity, integrity, kindness, generosity, and love, Dr. Balcomb said. There is hope, provided that we create committed relationships and put the most important values first.

By Yvo Bruffaerts, UPF Western Europe Subregional Coordinator
September 21, 2023


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