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Emilija is entering her high school building for the first time after graduating 30 years ago.
Nothing seems to be the same there – the paint of hallways, the drawings decorating the walls, the faces of teachers and pupils.
Neither is Emilija the same. She has gone a long way after leaving this school – from getting a university degree in economics at Skopje University and a master degree in marketing, followed by a master degree in international marketing from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, to working in domestic institutions before joining the EU Delegation as a programme manager in charge of external trade relations and customs.
It is a campaign of the EU Delegation that brings Emilija back to the Arsenij Jovkov school in the Skopje area of Butel. 'Back to School' is about employees, accompanied by Ambassador Žbogar, visiting once their secondary schools to share with current students their personal experience with the EU and to exchange views with them on topics of their interest and concern.
Being a chatty person, Emilija easily connects with a group of over 30 students that are gathered in one of the classrooms for a debate with her and Ambassador Žbogar. She is catching up with changes in curricula and news about her teachers who still happen to be around. Students are smiling with disbelief when hearing that 30 years ago there was only one room with computers in the school and that most of the then pupils did not even know how to switch them on. This is a good warm up for the upcoming debate with the Ambassador.
Žbogar notes the positive energy as soon as he enters the room. He explains that the 'Back to School' campaign is yet another occasion for him to be on the ground instead of office and to get to know the opinions of citizens. 'You are future citizens of the EU. You are young, you think out of the box and you present your views openly. Take advantage of it since when you get older you will eventually end up in the box', says the diplomat through a smile.
A couple of days earlier, Žbogar visited the Skopje-based Creative Hub, which was ranked by Forbes among the most promising companies globally run by people under the age of 30. In the context of concerns about outflow of skilled people from in North Macedonia, Žbogar points at the two owners as a good example of finding a way to stay in the country and be successful.
Now students take the floor and they list what they associate the EU with: good economy, being part of a system that includes economic superpowers (like Germany), more investment, more education and training opportunities, better future, multi-culturalism… It is clear that this is an economic school!
Žbogar is glad that the pupils link the EU with the real values it stands for. 'The EU was created by visionaries first of all as a peace project - in order to prevent wars, and then came the big market, easier communication, better life. The Union enshrines democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The EU fights against climate changes and death penalty and advocates peaceful resolution of conflicts. But it seems we have taken all this for granted. The economic crisis and then the migration crisis happened and ideas appeared to go back to national states. The economy and creating jobs are no longer main concerns for EU citizens; they have been replaced with safety and migration. Nationalist movements are on the rise. All this will make the upcoming elections for the European Parliament the most interesting ones in history. The fight will be between those who want to enhance the Union and those who want to go back to national states', says Žbogar.
A student asks whether the EU represents a step forward towards globalising the world. The Ambassador replies that the EU can be a role model for other regions in the world, such as Latin America or Africa. However, he adds, the Union must first sort out the current internal situation, notably Brexit and the divergence of views on its future, and to reform its decision making. 'Once we settle this, the EU can again be a role model', he concludes.
Economy, together with climate changes and education, also tops the list of main concerns that pupils have about their country.
The Ambassador agrees that not much is being done on environment. 'The EU does a lot, both in terms of projects and raising awareness, but there are still a lot of plastic bottles all over the place. We are thinking of giving publicity to those who give a good example of how environment is being taken care of', he says.
As far as the education is concerned, Žbogar points at poor results achieved by students in North Macedonia in international researches, such as PISA. 'Next year, the EU will allocate some 15 million euros for promotion of vocational education. Hopefully, this will inspire the government to do more in the area', says the Ambassador. He points at Erasmus as an opportunity for every student to get to know other countries, cultures and universities with the help of scholarships. Once in the EU, students from the country will be able to study anywhere under the same conditions. This fosters the uniting of diversity, as one of the EU's big assets, since diversity enriches people, Žbogar says. Arsenij Jovkov is a school that unites pupils from most ethnicities that live in the country. The Ambassador welcomes the fact that they attend classes in an integrated manner, without separate buildings.
The discussion naturally rests on economy. The Ambassador recalls researches that say that the GDP growth in the entire region needs to accelerate since at the current pace, the Western Balkans will need 50 years to reach the current GDP level of Germany. However, Žbogar stresses, the EU integration brings tangible economic benefits. After accession, the GDPs of Poland and Slovakia, for example, tripled. His country, Slovenia has so far received from the EU budget around 3.5 billion euros. Financial ratings of countries improve, their business environment is considered more stable and that attracts foreign investments. Currently, 80% of North Macedonia's trade is with the EU and 70% of investment comes from the Union. This can only increase when you become a member, says the Ambassador. Emilija steps in with interesting data: for the first time, the country has achieved trade balance with the EU: imports and exports with the EU were equal. Moreover, the country has registered significant surplus in bilateral trade with Germany last year - it exported products worth 1.8 billion euros while the value of imported goods was around 900 million euros.
Taking other questions about benefits from EU membership, the Ambassador confirms that Macedonian language will become official in the Union after the accession. Also, relations with other countries will further improve as they will be all part of the EU or third countries will be more interested in North Macedonia as it will be part of an important system. Being part of a system will not only increase the self-confidence of the country, but also its security, and that, as Žbogar says, is another argument in favour of the EU enlargement: if this region is stable, the EU won't need to spend energy and resources to maintain its stability.
About moving to the next stage of EU integration, the Ambassador underlines the need for further reforms, especially in the areas of fighting corruption and the rule of law. Some progress has been made, he says, but a lot of work still needs to be done, also during the membership negotiations that will hopefully start soon. 'Changes include change of mentality, not only of laws', says Žbogar.
Questions come also about the insufficient utilisation of EU assistance. The Ambassador informs that the EU Delegation is organising workshops throughout the country on how to access the EU aid. The Delegation also requested, through a letter, from all municipalities to appoint a person who will be trained to help local companies, organisations and individuals to apply for EU funds.
The debate is wrapped up with a family photo, but also with Emilija's final message to her young interlocutors: 'Take your education seriously, invest in it and learn languages'. Her generation, when leaving this school, she concludes, was not thinking of finding a secure job in the public administration, but of going for broader experience in the private sector before profiling themselves as professionals in a specific area.
The pupils nod. After this debate, they may not be completely the same, too. In addition to their perfect English, smart eyes and hip look, now they seem to glow also with some extra inspiration and enthusiasm.