OP-ED: Where the EU has benefits, the Western Balkans has potential

by Ognjen Markovic, Team Leader of the RCC’s Western Balkans Youth Lab project 

I was 13 years old when the first person from my close-knit circle of family announced she was leaving Montenegro. Back then I was not yet aware that it was the beginning of a ‘trend’ and that over the next few years I would keep witnessing more and more people I know leaving our homeland to find a living in the EU.

Reading that 71% of young people from the Western Balkans would consider working and living abroad, I was struck by a bittersweet feeling. To me, and to many citizens of the Western Balkans, the percentage is not just a number, because hidden behind it are the names of family members and loved ones who we will get to see only two or three times a year when they return home for the holidays.

On the other hand, the attractiveness of the EU is understandable. Beyond the promises of a higher pay, greater sense of stability and security and other socio-economic indicators, the EU offers mobility that most young people crave for. And while highways, fast trains and flight connections may sound banal, to a person who has entered adulthood only recently, they provide endless possibilities and new and exciting experiences.

For those who enjoy spending their time in nature, the EU commitment to the Green Deal and sustainable tourism provides clean air, water and easy access to well-marked hiking trails. Capitals of EU Member States have the infrastructural capacity to attract world-renowned musicians, film and art festivals. For the ambitious and career-oriented individuals, open labour market provides a broad range of opportunities, not least grounded in the process of recognition of academic and professional qualifications.

I have a deep admiration for the European Union as such, especially since I had the opportunity to experience it first hand during my study exchanges in Slovenia, Poland and Italy. It was then that I came to fully understand the benefits of cross-border initiatives that bring young people together.

It was particularly impressive that, along with the diversity of our backgrounds and interests, we could easily agree on the changes we wanted to see in the world around us. And it did not matter if students came from the Western Balkans or the EU, because we shared the same values and principles: freedom, democracy, equal opportunities. Most of all, we agreed that our voices should be heard.

I took this lesson with me as I returned to Montenegro.

Though I enjoyed and valued my time in the EU tremendously, still coming home felt right. When saying ‘coming home’, I do not mean only Montenegro but the entire region of the Western Balkans.

Namely, there is another aspect of my life through which I had the immense pleasure of developing a deep connection to our region. From a young age, I was a member of a folklore ensemble, which had taken me across the Western Balkans to numerous competitions and festivals. We would travel very often to small cities and rural areas in the region, eager to represent our culture, but even more enthusiastic to learn about the others. It is through that experience that I heard Albanian music for the first time, and  loved it ever since; I revelled in Macedonian national dishes, which I still praise to everyone I meet; in Serbia I learned about hospitality and untouched sceneries, while in Bosnia and Herzegovina I discovered ceif and merak.

Everywhere I went I met brilliant people my age and I have been cherishing those friendships to this day. This made me sure that what we have in common is much more significant than what tells us apart.

From my student exchanges in Slovenia, Poland and Italy, I returned with a thought: “Where the EU has benefits, the Western Balkans has potential.”

Thus, when the opportunity to join Regional Cooperation Council’s Western Balkans Youth Lab project presented itself in 2020, I eagerly packed my bags and moved to Sarajevo, ready to assist the implementation of everything I believed in: giving young people of the Western Balkans a platform that makes their voices heard, and even more so, that involves them in the meaningful way in the decision-making processes, contributing to the fulfilment of the regional potential.

Now, in the winter of 2024, with the first phase of the project behind us, I can confidently say that it was a right decision to make.

Together with young people from across the region, we enacted real and substantial changes. From amending laws on youth employment tailored as per youth needs to creating national strategies on youth mental health, new generations in the Western Balkans can look forward to better conditions and a brighter future. Most importantly, they can find inspiration and motivation in the fact that the change comes from us – for us, as long as we stay committed to the joint perspective that we all share.

The fact that we made only the first steps on the long road that waits ahead is not discouraging. I am proud and honoured to work with incredible young people, and I do not doubt even for a second that they have what it takes to eventually turn the tides on the emigration waves, to transform the potential into benefits, and to lead the way to the family of EU Member States, where the Western Balkans rightly belongs.

* This publication was funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the Center for Democracy Foundation and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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