European Western Balkans

Policy Brief: Youth cooperation between EU and WB to go beyond economy and culture

Youth; Photo: Pixabay

VIENNA — Young people in the Western Balkans and the EU should be made aware of all possibilities for cooperation and reconciliation programs by relevant regional organizations, while the Interreg-IPA Cross-border Cooperation Programme Hungary-Serbia, which already finances youth projects, should focus more on the rule of law and democratic reforms, rather than just economy and culture, it was recommended by the Policy Brief Youth Cooperation in the Serbian-Hungarian Context published within the WB2EU network. 

The youth has been receiving an increasing amount of attention within the EU, with 2022 being declared the Year of the European Youth and the launch EU Youth Strategy for period 2019-2027. Young people in the accession countries are not exempt from this either, “as they are considered to be better able to overcome old animosities and are more open to new ideas and perspectives,” the policy brief explained. 

Western Balkans leaders have reaffirmed their support for youth policies by establishment of Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) in 2016 within the framework of the Berlin Process. Main goals of RYCO include fostering exchange, cooperation and reconciliation in the region, as well as empowering young people. A number of successful projects have been carried out  in these areas by RYCO, which gathers all six Western Balkan countries and is supported by the EU. 

Other programmes and initiatives aimed at youth that policy brief draws attention to include ERASMUS exchange programme, one of the most successful examples of youth mobility. Currently all Western Balkan countries are included in ERASMUS, but only North Macedonia and Serbia are fully included as programme countries. Recognizing the importance of exchange programmes like ERASMUS for “fostering reconciliation, dismantling old animosities, and establishing trust by providing exchange possibilities,” the policy brief calls for changing the status of the remaining 4 partner countries to programme countries and further promotion of mobility opportunities. 

EU Strategy for the Danube Region (EUSDR) includes 9 EU members, as well as Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many youth-oriented activities have been carried out under this framework, such as the YouthDanube Salon and the Young Bled Strategic Forum. However, the problem that authors of the policy brief identify when it comes to EUSDR is the lack of overview of all activities, as well as unsustainable funding base, which limits their impact. 

When it comes to EU enlargement, youth topics are covered by Chapter 26, “Education and Culture”, and Chapter 19, “Social Policy and Employment”, which are both found in the cluster “Competitiveness & Inclusive Growth,” as the authors point out. But young people also need to be included in regional cooperation and reconciliation processes and “they should be encouraged to engage with people from different countries and various backgrounds to foster education and personal development.” However, the authors warn that young people should not be seen as a homogenous group of like-minded individuals open to EU values. 

“Radicalisation of young people is a fact and the EU policies with their reoccurring calls for good-neighbourly relations and reconciliation are very likely not to reach this group of youth, who is rejecting the EU and western ideas in general and is feeling self-confidence through national patriotism or even anti-democratic nationalism,” as the policy brief points out.

Interreg-IPA Cross-border Cooperation Programme Hungary-Serbia 

One of the programmes aimed at promoting cooperation, especially between border regions of Hungary and Serbia, concluded its fourth period which lasted from 2014 till 2020. Research shows that, out of 113 projects launched in this period, 46 projects were primarily focused on young people. Moreover, the authors point out that 40% of all projects implemented under this framework “target young people in one way or the other.” 

An example of a youth project implemented through The Interreg-IPA CBC Hungary-Serbia is the project “BEE – Student – Building Entrepreneurial Ecosystem – Student entrepreneurship beyond borders” which aimed at fostering entrepreneurship among young people through trainings and workshops. The project was carried out by the Faculty of Technology of Novi Sad from the Serbian side and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Csongrád County from the Hungarian side. More projects like this took place in the 2014-2020 period and they were mainly focused on strengthening cooperation and understanding between youth from Serbia and Hungary in the fields of economy, culture, tourism or sports. 

The policy brief recommends that the cooperation through this programme should expand to areas of EU values, such as rule of law and political participation.

“Considering that the Interreg-IPA CBC Hungary-Serbia contains more than 40% youth projects, the EU, Hungary, and Serbia need to support cross-border projects in the area of political participation, justice, and the rule of law, beyond the collaboration in terms of economy and culture,” the policy brief stated. 

An example of that kind of cooperation would be exchange of young law students between the EU and Serbian institutions, in order for them to understand the EU practices in the field of rule of law and learn how to deal with sensitive issues such as corruption. 

“Students should be introduced to the EU’s clear understanding of the rule of law. Learning such values as a young person would help develop tomorrow’s leaders, fight against corruption, nepotism, and state capture, creating a political system based on democratic standards,” the policy brief concluded. 

The Policy Brief is published in the framework of the WB2EU project. The project aims at the establishment of a network of renowned think-tanks, do-tanks, universities, higher education institutes and policy centres from the Western Balkans, neighbouring countries and EU member states that will be most decisive for the enlargement process and Europeanisation of the region in the upcoming years. The WB2EU project is co-funded by the European Commission under its Erasmus+ Jean Monnet programme.

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