Serbia, Youth, And The EU – OpEd

“To be credible, I believe we must talk about timing and homework. And I have a proposal. As we prepare the EU’s next strategic agenda, we must set ourselves a clear goal. I believe we must be ready – on both sides – by 2030 to enlarge. This means that the EU’s next long-term budget will need to include our common goals. This is ambitious, but necessary. It shows that we are serious. It will build momentum. It will give a transformative boost to reforms and it will generate interest, investments and better understanding, and encourage us all to work together.”[3] — Charles Michel

“We all have our history. The history of enlargement is a history of countries that came out of the Second World War. It is a history of peace and of reconciliation and of normalization of relations, and therefore this is a precondition to join the European Union.”[4] — Ursula von der Leyen

Recent public opinion surveys have revealed a significant decline in support for EU membership among the citizens of Serbia, raising concerns. Only slightly over 40 per cent of Serbia’s citizens want membership in the EU. I find this data disheartening, particularly as it underscores a troubling lack of interest among the youth in this prospect. Concurrently, there has been a notable increase in interest towards alternative integrations, such as BRICS. While Serbia should undoubtedly cooperate with all regions of the world, EU membership is a strategically important and unequivocal commitment of Serbia, as often emphasized by President Aleksandar Vučić, and we should persist in that direction.

President of the European Council, Charles Michel, stated at the Bled Strategic Forum that Western Balkan countries could potentially join the EU in 2030. When considering the individual experiences of member states in the accession process, such as Slovenia’s, this prospect appears neither unrealistic nor unattainable. Our journey towards EU membership should be informed by the knowledge and experiences of others, as has been demonstrated and verified in practice. Slovenia initiated membership negotiations in 1998 and attained full EU membership in 2004, completing the process in a mere six years. At the time, there was a prevailing sentiment in Europe that enlargement would be beneficial for all parties involved, a notion that was subsequently validated.

The precursor to the EU, the “European Coal and Steel Community,” was initially conceived as a peace initiative. It is imperative to translate this peace project to our region. Proactive measures are essential to prevent potential conflicts in the Western Balkans, as the cost of such conflicts would far exceed that of EU enlargement. People in the Western Balkans aspire to peace, prosperity, and progress, not conflict. EU membership offers the most effective means of ensuring enduring stability in the region, a view shared by many European leaders who support maintaining an open-door policy toward the Western Balkans. It’s imperative that a new “iron curtain” doesn’t descend upon the European continent regarding the Western Balkans.

The international standing of any newly admitted EU member state is significantly bolstered upon EU membership. As a member, the country gains a seat at the table and can influence both EU affairs and relations between the EU and the broader international community. EU accession integrates a state into a thriving community, offering economic, security, and various other advantages in exchange for a portion of sovereignty. While the EU is committed to overall progress, each nation must also safeguard its cultural and national identity. The EU provides opportunities that each member state must learn how to leverage individually. Importantly, membership does not diminish national identities but rather strengthens them. This is evident in nations close to us like Bulgaria and Greece.

I wish to underscore the pivotal role of youth in Serbia’s EU accession process, as EU membership represents an investment in our future. We are witnessing a concerning trend of emigration from our country, particularly among the youth. However, through the proactive implementation of policies by our authorities, we are gradually stemming this tide. We must bring the EU to Serbia and Serbia to the EU, as this will diminish the need for emigration but rather foster regular migrations within EU member states. Consequently, individuals from other EU countries will be drawn to live and work in Serbia. In this endeavour, the invaluable role and experiences of our diaspora, already established in the EU, are indispensable.

Young people often possess an international perspective, aspiring to pursue education and employment opportunities abroad while recognizing the EU’s role as a vital stabilizing force in Europe. Even long after World War II, a significant number of respondents continue to regard peace as a fundamental value of the EU, emphasizing Europe’s enduring commitment to being a continent of peace.

Given this context, it is imperative to actively engage and empower young people as key drivers of Serbia’s European integrations. One proposed measure is to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 years, recognizing the real need for intergenerational balance in decision-making, fostering greater civic engagement, and promoting inclusivity. Initiatives aimed at reducing the voting age are gaining traction globally, driven by the belief that every voice, regardless of age, deserves representation in a genuine representative democracy. Several countries, including Austria, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, have recently lowered the general voting age to 16, while serious public discussions on the matter are underway in numerous other nations such as the Czech Republic, Finland, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Australia, and Japan.

Younger generations, particularly those with a global outlook towards integrations, organizations, and diverse spheres of interest, should approach issues with open-mindedness, basing their perspectives on rationality rather than solely on emotions or indoctrination. It is essential for them to discern what truly serves the best interests of Serbia and its citizens. Throughout history, Serbia has always been a part of and belonged to Europe. We share the destiny of Europe while also contributing to its present and future.

As a businessman who frequently travels the world, I witness first-hand various phenomena, including the dynamics of global migration primarily directed towards EU member states. This underscores the attractiveness of the EU as a destination for living and working. From a business standpoint, I can attest that the EU provides an exceptional environment for economic activities.

With Ukraine and Moldova beginning negotiations with the EU and Georgia being granted candidate status, I see no obstacles for Western Balkan countries to become EU members. This would undoubtedly be a win-win situation for all involved and reaffirm our European identity.

About author: Bogoljub J. Karić was born in 1954 in Peć/Peja. He graduated from the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Priština, majoring in geography. He earned his master’s degree in “Organization and Development of Small Business” from the Faculty of Economics in Niš. In 1971, alongside his three brothers and sister, he established the family-owned factory “Braća Karić” in Peć. Over nearly half a century, he developed a large-scale company with operations spanning various sectors globally, including telecommunications, construction, finance, education, media, trade, etc.

[1] IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council ECOSOC/UN in New York since 2018, and it is the publisher of the international scientific journal “European Perspectives.”

[2] The article is based on a presentation given at the international conference “Serbia, Youth, and the European Union,” held on 8 February 2024, in Belgrade, organized by Alfa BK University and the “Karić Brothers” Foundation.

[3] European Councile, Speech by President Charles Michel at the Bled Strategic Forum, link: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2023/08/28/speech-by-president-charles-michel-at-the-bled-strategic-forum/

[4] Euronews, Von der Leyen vows to bring Western Balkan and EU economies ‘closer’ as four-day visit starts, link: https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2023/10/30/von-der-leyen-vows-to-bring-western-balkan-and-eu-economies-closer-as-four-day-visit-start

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