Report: The Hague, New Horizons for the Young Generations in the Balkans

Our initiative/series Young Generations for the new Balkans 2030: Towards Alternative Horizons sets the spotlight on youth, their progressive stances and hopes for the future.

On December 3rd, 2018 the Embassy of Austria in The Hague, The Netherlands hosted a panel discussion titled “New Horizons for the Young Generations in the Balkans” where the first results of our initiative that had been previously discussed at a recent conference in Vienna were presented by the International Institute for Peace, Karl-Renner-Institut, as well as the Austrian Institute for International Affairs and the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe. In addition, young experts from the region who have for a long time participated in our various initiatives, discussed their visions of how to overcome old-fashioned politics, nationalisms, and the lack of perspective for younger generations in the Western Balkans. They have sketched alternative horizons for South-Eastern Europe’s way beyond emigration. The Hague was the first place in Europe after Vienna where the results of the above mentioned initiative have been presented to the public.

The Austrian ambassador to the Netherlands, Heidemaria Gürer, made some introductory remarks, whereas Hannes Swoboda, the President of the IIP and a former MEP, presented the overall results of our initiative. The discussion was composed of two panels. “Migration as a Matter of Fact: How to Deal with Brain Drain in South East Europe” featured Djordje Bojovic, European Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences; Adnan Ćerimagić, European Stability Initiative, Berlin; and Stefani Spirovska, Youth Educational Forum, Skopje. At the panel on “Regional Cooperation and EU Integration” spoke Aulonë Memeti, DOIT, Pristina, and Danijel Tadić, Project Manager for South-Eastern Europe, Foundation Max van der Stoel, and it was moderated by Kati Piri, Dutch Member of the European Parliament.

Once again, the questions of migration and education were in the centre of the lively discussion. Many young participants in the auditorium had roots in the Balkans and had an interest to strengthen their ties (primarily economic) to their home countries. Consequently, we did not only discuss the brain drain, but also the possibility and necessity of brain gain.

Another crucial topic which was often mentioned was the poor quality of education in the Western Balkans that also stands in sharp contrast to that in the EU-countries. The big gap in the quality of education between the EU and the Western Balkans has had long-term negative effect on young generations of the latter. In addition, many prejudices and significant differences in the interpretation of history of the region are still present in schoolbooks in Western Balkan countries. What became clear from these discussions is that we still have a long way to go before a common narrative for a wider Europe is developed which would include EU countries and the Western Balkans. Without such a common narrative of how we want Europe to develop and to manage the most urgent issues – like to preserve democracy, create jobs, manage migration, and fight climate change - it will be difficult to come closer to enlargement, which should be seen not only from a technical point of view but also as a political process.

The next day, on December 4th, the group was also holding a meeting at the Clingendael Foundation in The Hague in order to elaborate on how to proceed with the initiative. Jan Marinus Wiersmer, the Senior Visiting Fellow and a former MEP was hosting this meeting. The discussion was vital and all of the participants agreed that the aim of the initiative should be to have something different from what is usually offered by and on behalf of the region. Since the group was very diverse but still relatively young the idea would be to present either a 2-3 pager of 10 to 15 answers to some basic questions to distribute to those working on Western Balkans such as MPs, new MEPs, Commission staff, people working in MFAs and national and international media. This should happen in the framework of multiperspectivity. Questions could be as following: Where do you see your region in 10 years? Is your region a black hole? How can we boost quality of life in the region? Why do people leave? What should change in the current approach towards the region?

Another product of the initiative would be a set of policy recommendations for one specific issue area that is widely considered as the most pressing.

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 Voices of the young generation


 Adnan Cerimagic (B&H), European Stability Initiative, Berlin

„When migration from the Western Balkans to the EU is discussed, it is important to note that it refers to the legal migration. Dominant majority of citizens of the Western Balkans go to the EU to work or study. Though more complicated, their path is little different from that of Estonians or Slovenians who move somewhere. 

The difference between Estonian or Slovenian and any Western Balkans citizen is in the quality of life they leave at home, the vision their societies have for the future, as well as the level and quality of education and skills they take with them. The gap between our region and Estonia or Slovenia is too wide.

Currently joining the EU remains a very distant and uncertain prospect for citizens from the Western Balkans. They do not know when and if it will ever happen. Instead what they see is a situation where everyone talks about their countries moving closer to the EU, and bad living conditions in their daily lives. What is needed is an EU accession process that is beneficial to these countries today, that produces economic growth, better services and less corruption today.

Education is the area where concrete improvements are possible. In 2018 for the first time in history all six Western Balkan states took part in the OECD’s PISA study at the same time. Results are expected during 2019. Compared to Estonia or Slovenia, where 15-years old students are world’s top performers, students from the Western Balkans are at the global bottom. We should use PISA results to kick-start a debate on how to improve the quality of education. We should use Estonia and Slovenia as inspiration and aim for the debate to result with concrete policy proposals and provide concrete results for citizens of the Western Balkans“

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Djordje Bojovic (Serbia), European Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences

“The youth of the Western Balkans has both duty and responsibility to make the peace process irreversible. Our generation has to delve beyond mythic narratives in order to create an area where war criminals are neither in power nor honoured. It is thus of the utmost importance to close the bloody chapters from the recent history by dealing with the past and putting the reconciliation high on the agenda. Indeed, it is a prerequisite for our societies to embrace European values and move forward by making the Western Balkans a place where peace meets regional cooperation and active youth.”

Stefani Spirovska (Macedonia), Youth Educational Forum, Skopje

“In the process of building a strong region and decreasing the current rate of brain drain, we must put in focus the youth and their needs. It is important to note that the young people do not leave the region only because of economic reasons, but there are several other important factors. The three main areas in which our society has to improve as soon as possible in order to prevent permanent loss of young capacities are: 

-Youth employment by further implementation, promotion and development of policies such as youth guarantee scheme, and decreasing the youth unemployment rate that currently is double compared to any other social  category


- Quality of education by updating the programs and materials and effective countering of corruption, especially in higher education
-Youth standard by recognizing the youth as a social category provided with benefits such as student discount cards, decent student dorms, accessible libraries and enriched cultural life.

We should not be trying to stop youth mobility, which is one of the values recognized and promoted by the European Union itself, but on the contrary –to become good enough to motivate the youth to come back to our region once they finish their degrees or practices abroad and bring their knowledge and human capital back.”

Aulonë Memeti (Kosovo), DOIT, Pristina


“The alarming PISA test results in the Western Balkans are a clear indicator of the poor quality of education in the region, including the higher education system, which is no better. In countries where the quality of education is not a top priority, the citizens will remain in a perpetual state of underdevelopment, political turmoil and prone to manipulation. Thus, I strongly believe that civic society, parents, media, etc., in the Western Balkans should pressure their respective governments to take concrete measures aimed at improving the overall education system.”

"My take from the The Hague discussions is that the enlargement discourse should not any longer be dominated or manipulated by local political elites that often say yes to European values but think no. Being in many cases the only counterparts of EU decision makers they do not present proper perspectives on what is really going on in candidate countries and on their own roles. Existing civic society forums are often not taken seriously enough by policymakers.  Much more should be done to include their assessments in the decision-making at - in particular - parliamentary levels. Listening to the – sometimes opposing – views of young, dynamic and very well-informed experts at the The Hague meetings made it clear to me that there still must be many who will not give up and stay instead of voting with their feet."

Jan Marinus Wiersma (Netherlands), Clingendael Institute, The Hague, former MEP