It is a sunny, early spring day in Demir Hisar. Few cars and pedestrians can be seen on the streets that surround the only secondary school in this town with some 2,000 inhabitants. This building used to have much more students before the collapse of the few industrial facilities made many residents look for a better life elsewhere. But today, the atmosphere in the school is more vibrant than usual.
Around 30 pupils are gathered in a classroom, excited, yet in a somewhat restrained way, to discuss the EU with its highest representative in the country. There is Petar Barlakovski, a moderator from the Youth Educational Forum NGO, which is also part of the series of debates with young people. The Forum runs 15 youth clubs across the country under an EU-funded project on youth expression.
The quiet excitement of the present students is even greater because among them is a very popular TV persona. Driton Vejseli plays one of the favourite characters in the TV sitcom 'Prespav', which has won the sympathy of the audience from all generations. Vejseli aka Talat describes 'Prespav' as a series that deals with the issues of mentality and diversity in a humorous way. Humour, in his view, is a tool to make things better – it unites the citizens and makes every ethnicity contribute to a better society. 'Prespav' was financially supported by the EU in its first season for spreading EU values. Vejseli says this sitcom is an example of how diversity can indeed unite, as one of the EU's most popular mottos says.
The entry of Ambassador Samuel Žbogar into the classroom marks the start of the debate. He is taking his seat, welcomes the pupils and asks what they associate the EU with.
'Freedom, connectivity, money', reads the first batch of answers, spoken in a somewhat shy way. 'Stability, overall improvement, better economy', say other students with more confidence, responding to the question why their country should become part of the Union. The ice has been broken.
The Ambassador elaborates on the values the EU stands for as the main motives for other countries to become part of the system. The priority of EU citizens, as he says, has shifted in past years – from economy and more jobs to maintaining security in the wake of the migration flow, a concern that is also paving the way for populist and nationalist movements to get strength. 'Being part of a greater family is important nowadays. It is like being on a big cruise liner instead of a small boat. The water can still be rocky, but you are more stable', says Žbogar.
The students are presenting their personal concerns. What they say they lack the most in Demir Hisar are cultural and sport events, social life, professional prospects and infrastructure. They all seem enthusiastic about going to university, but not about returning to town afterwards if the conditions remain the same. The Ambassador says that the EU allocates 100 million euros per year aimed at improving the life of people all over the country. He adds that the process of people migrating from North Macedonia, a problem that other countries, including in the EU, are facing, needs to be addressed by the government.
The issue of Brexit and the reflections on reforms within the EU impose as a topic. Žbogar explains the importance of an agreement on Brexit being reached, but also about deliberations in the Union to replace the consensual vote with a majority one on certain issues in order to make the decision making easier. The Ambassador also speaks about the ideas of having 'two EU's' – an inner circle of Member States that are willing to merge further, and the rest of the countries. There are no other member states contemplating leaving the Union, which means that the 27 are more united than ever about keeping the EU, he says.
Inevitably, the discussion leads to the Prespa Agreement and the change of the name vis-à-vis the specific benefits that the country gets by moving towards the EU thanks to the agreement.
With a note that he does not want to make a comparison between this sensitive issue for the local population and concessions made by other member states in their accession processes, the Ambassador explains the changes that his country – Slovenia – had to make in order to become part of the greater European family. That included changes of the constitution linked to issues with Italy and foreigners being able to buy property. However, the accession made his small country gain greater importance on the international scene, which increased its self-confidence. Its language became an official EU language. Slovenia is a country where the economy does well after the crisis of several years ago, human rights are respected, and the flow of tourists grew to the extent that people of Ljubljana start to complain, Žbogar says with a smile. He adds that North Macedonia's stalemate on the EU path in the past years resulted in overall backsliding, but the future positive changes will make sense to the change that was not easy for the citizens. The Ambassador lists the necessary reforms that need to be done, mostly linked to the rule of law, judiciary, security services, fighting corruption…
Before the conclusion of the debate, for the first time in the series of discussions with high school students (this is the third one), a girl with a fluorescent blue hair asks about the LGBTI rights. The EU fully supports the right of choice and everybody's feelings, the rights stemming from ethnicity, political or sexual orientation, says Žbogar. He is hopeful that the new anti-discrimination legislation will make everybody 'even more equal'.
The debate comes to an end and the participants are making their way to the doors of the school. The schoolyard is now full of kids. Excited and smiling, they are waiting for their favourite TV character Talat to sign the pieces of paper they had torn from notebooks. And the queue is long.
It was a beautiful, early spring day in Demir Hisar.