Young people from the Western Balkans should be able to make decisions about their own future. To do so they need to meet with their peers across Europe, learn from each other, exchange ideas on how to create a greener, prosperous and more equal world for everybody. They want to experience life in the EU on the spot and share best practices in their communities. They need more support from the EU to develop their education systems so that schools provide the skills and knowledge needed to address the challenges of today. The same goes for the capacity for research. Above all the experience of partnerships with students across the EU should be available to students not just in capitals and from those best able to access education but throughout the countries of the Western Balkans including rural and marginalised communities.
These are some of the aspirations and ideas that 24 high school students from the region, together with the 12 Young European Ambassadors, presented in the debate to the EU ambassadors to the Western Balkan countries on 9 May. These teenagers, already proven drivers of positive change in their societies, had a unique opportunity to exchange views at this level, initiated by the EU Delegation to North Macedonia.
The EU is already connected with the Western Balkans through numerous EU-funded projects, but, as students mentioned, there is a need to involve more young people, especially from rural areas and marginalised groups. The Bosnian students raised the issue of the European Youth Goals https://europa.eu/youth/strategy/european-youth-goals_en becoming part of the school curricula. A student from Albania proposed that there should be more competitions with awards such as study trips to the EU in order to motivate young people to learn more about the Union. Most of the participants were aware of the role of the Young European Ambassadors (to present European values and bring the EU idea closer to the citizens), but agreed that it should be further promoted.
In most countries in the region, there are laws on youth engagement, but their implementation remains an issue, said the participants. Those from North Macedonia said that youth centres were being set up, which is a step forward in youth empowerment. But they are aware that change cannot happen out of the blue and that the involvement of young people is necessary to make a real difference.
The event was an opportunity also for the EU ambassadors to BiH, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia to speak about what the EU meant for them personally. Some of those coming from Western European countries, recalled that they were born into a post-war generation which had grown up committed to the peace-making mission of the European Union and the principle that “Never Again” should the continent be split by conflict. Some others talked about the experience of growing up and witnessing the development of freedom of movement, the removal of borders, the creation of a single market and the many benefits that flowed from that. Other who hailed from Central European countries underlined the huge impact the fall of the iron curtain and the unification of Europe had had on their lives in terms of individual freedoms. All highlighted the power of the European Union to connect people across the European continent as one of its major assets. As Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the EU, once said: “we are not forming coalitions between States, but union among people”.
The ambassadors welcomed the energy and determination of the participants encouraging them to be even more demanding: among their peers, in their own countries and towards the EU. They also urged them to use the opportunities under Erasmus + as much as possible, and to work towards achieving the priorities of the European Green Deal. Ambassador David Geer said that the Delegation to North Macedonia was reaching out to young people at local level, especially via the three Europe Houses. ‘The EU will continue creating opportunities for the youth, but we need young people to work with us and to engage with other stakeholders in society’, said the Ambassador. He then praised the efforts of youth activists recalling the words of one participating student Blendi Hodai who had explained his commitment to activism quite simply “because I don’t want to be part of a generation that just complains”.