EWB Op-Ed by Tanja Fajon, member of the European Parliament (S&D, Slovenia)
While I’m at the Gare de Paris Est station, waiting for the train to Strasbourg, where the final plenary session of the European Parliamant before the summer break is about to happen, I am trying to summarize the impressions from the Civil Society Forum held today in Paris, as a part of the summit of the Western Balkans region.
All important initiatives focused on the future of the Western Balkans countries within the EU set the youth at the very center. Berlin process, initiative spearheaded by Germany, as well as Brdo-Brijuni, regional initiative we started in Slovenia, in addition to the comprehensive agenda with the aim of integration of the region and the construction of infrastructure, mainly deal with the young generation connections. What I am particularly happy about is that we finally realized it was exactly the situation of these young people whose opportunities are limited, because of the not so distant wars and political instability, and the mobility within the region contaminated by ethnic tensions and disagreements, what should occupy our attention. Because, you will agree, if we connect young people from the region and open a window to their peers from the European Union, bridges, railways, highways and other infrastructure will come as a logical extension.
I am proud that precisely Slovenia, in cooperation with France and the European Commission, at the last Brdo-Brijuni meeting of leaders from the region, proposed the adoption of the Positive agenda for youth, which was later confirmed by the Berlin process at a meeting in Vienna in August 2015. The aim of the initiative is clear: to achieve (better) perspective for young people in the region, as well as linkages, both within the region and between the region and the EU, through the better use of existing programs and introducing new ones. The idea on which the Agenda is based on is to enable more student exchanges, but also give an opportunity to young people from the Western Balkans countries to obtain work experience in the EU countries. I am convinced that by empowering young people we build a better, more stable and certainly more prosperous society, while at the same time we encourage their development, prevent the massive brain drain and fight against their disappointment, due to the lack of opportunities that can lead to the lack of motivation, mental disorders and even radicalization.
The next important thing that will mark the Paris meeting is the establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO). Formed – symbolically – as an initiative of Albania and Serbia, and modeled after the Franco-German Youth Cooperation after the World War II, this office is a real refreshment for the region and has the potential to become very successful. The mission of RYCO namely targets the very heart of the problems in the Western Balkans: its main task is to promote the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation in the region through the implementation of joint projects. I believe that supporting young people in the fight against and distancing from racism, xenophobia, hate speech and discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin, religion or language is the only true way to achieve genuine reconciliation in the region. Young people who have so much in common, in historical and spiritual sense, must be the bearers of a new era in the Western Balkans, the era that takes away the ethnic tensions, brings a concerted generation of young people who respect one another and strive for a better future for the entire region.
Another important thing I want to point out is the role of the European Parliament, which should be established as a comprehensive platform for discussing the issues of young people in the countries of the Western Balkans. As an EU institution that embodies the desire of the people and epitomizes the civil sector – which has a very important role in the process of empowerment of young people – I am deeply convinced that precisely the Parliament has to take on this role in the context of EU integration of the Western Balkans countries.
In cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia and, together with the office of my parliamentary colleague Franc Bogovič, in late June I hosted a conference at the European Parliament entitled “A better future for young people in the Western Balkans”. Under the common hashtag #YouthWB, and with the help of representatives of governmental and non-governmental sector, we have identified the main problems faced by young people, and possibilities within which we will approach their solution. I will advocate for this issue to remain on the agenda of the sessions of the EP Delegations with the Western Balkans countries, informal groups of friends and all the other bodies, within which our joint parliamentary forces will get to solving specific problems, such as excessive tuition fees at universities in countries of the European Union for Western Balkans students or inconsistency when it comes to recognition of education in the region. Visit of the Group of Friends of Serbia in the EP in Belgrade at the end of this week is an excellent opportunity to take action!
While I’m finishing this article, the train is slowly approaching the Strasbourg main railway station. Beside me sits Milan, 22-year-old from Serbia who is studying political science at the Science Po in Strasbourg. When I asked him to comment the situation of young people in the region he responded: “We are fed up with the stagnation in the region, eager for change. Few of us young people would leave the country to study or work if it was not really necessary. We want to overcome ethnic divisions, to forget the bitter image of division and strife, and together to become a part of the European Union. Despite all the difficulties that the Union faces, young people out there have much better living conditions. See the Brexit results, who is opposing UK’s leaving from the EU the most? Young people, of course.”
“Young people, of course” are the words ringing in my head as I walk towards the building of the European Parliament. Not only in forums and conferences such as today’s in Paris, I would like young people at the heart of all sessions, policies and decisions we make. Because, as someone said at a conference recently, young people are not our future, but our present.
Tanja Fajon is a Slovenian politician and journalist. She is a member of the European Parliament, Vice-President of the parliamentary group Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament and Vice-President of the Slovenian Social Democrats.