Where Europe is not a tempting alternative

Posted on 31. March 2014

by Danijela Bozovic

danijela-bozovic-modifiedOnce upon a time, there was a country…Wait, I don’t believe in fairytales. Let’s start again. Today, for young people growing up in Serbia, especially outside of Belgrade, the future can look decidedly depressing. A high unemployment rate among young people (about 50%) and a lack of access to the labor market, a bad education system, a bad health system, just intensifying young people’s desire to leave their towns and Serbia behind, altogether.

Highly qualified young Serbians tend to look to other countries for employment opportunities. There is no comprehensive data on how many young people have left Serbia in the last 20 years, but according to research the number is around 300,000. Of the total country’s budget only 0.02% is allocated to the youth, and as for the budget of the Ministry of Youth and Sport of the Republic of Serbia only 5% is directed to youth, while 95% goes to the sport. It is clear that decision makers in Serbia do not refer to youth as a “societal resource”.

But, is there any possibility for substantial changes?….Hmmm, I am not sure. We just had an early parliamentary election. Young people represent 20% of the electorate body in Serbia and we heard a lot of promises for young from representatives of all political parties. But where are the young people in the election campaign and programs of political parties? What’s about their expectations?

A recent poll has shown that the main problems for young people in Serbia are absence of prospects in Serbia, youth unemployment, bad economic situation, an expensive education, violence and crime, and lack of the institutional support. In the opinion of young people, the most important tasks for the new Serbia’s government should be actions to reduce the youth unemployment and boost the economic development. Other issues are solving social problems, the fight against corruption and organized crime and the struggle for Kosovo in Serbia. It’s very interesting fact that that 75% of young people think that there would be no changes after election. It indicates that too many young people have lost faith in the idea that they can hope for a better future.

The Serb Progressive Party-led coalition, with its leader Aleksandar Vucic, a party of former ultra-nationalists converted to the cause of European Union membership (I can’t forget their past!), won an outright majority in parliament. But will new government introduce some reforms? I do not believe it. I cannot recall that any serious economic program was implemented in Serbia, during its previous two years. The key reform of the labour, privatization and bankruptcy laws were blocked by themselves.

The only thing we had were the arrests: The police arrested the billionaire Miroslav Miskolic and some former ministers. They noticed that the people are happy when someone is arrested, and that these arrests strengthen their political rating – and now after the election they arrested Darko Saric, a suspected drug boss. The early elections were called with the explanation that they need to gain full legitimacy for the reforms needed on the path towards the EU membership, but the main reason was the desire of his party to get more power. I only hope and I do believe in the EU and its lessons learnt from previous enlargements. So, during whole Serbian accession process, EU should be much stricter in monitoring the application of EU law.

Wait, what’s about the EU? Did anyone mention the EU throughout this election campaign? What future membership in EU could bring to the next generations of young people? Why is it important? Wait, Serbia has started with EU accession negotiation, and that’s it? Unfortunately, it’s true! The European integration was totally off topic in this election campaign.  Before that, all topics about EU were highly political, and you couldn’t hear or read anything about the EU without mentioning Kosovo, economic crises etc.

According to the latest research the young population expresses the biggest opposition for EU integration. Why don’t the young Serbians support European integration? I think that the reason for the huge number of young Euroskeptic’s generation is the fact that this generation has spent most of their lives in the post transition Serbia and they do not remember the war.

Also, there is the fact that over 75% of young people in Serbia have never left the country. There are several reasons for not traveling. Until 2010, EU visa restrictions meant travel to Western Europe was cumbersome, expensive, and, in many cases — particularly for young males — impossible. Although Serbia’s admission to the White Schengen list reduced the bureaucratic hurdles to travel abroad, travel remains expensive and outside the budgets of many young Serbs.

At the same time young Serbians don’t see a clear perspective and their better future in the EU. As a consequence we have more and more young nationalists. They are victims of manipulation and exploitation, because the most influential nationalist parties and groups recruit their supporters among younger than 25. If we look the pictures and videos from the latest riots after the gay parade and the rally in support of war criminal Ratko Mladic we could see young people in first line.

There are many reasons for young people negative opinion on the EU – the Union’s opinion on Kosovo, fear of losing sovereignty, bad economic situation in some of the member States. They question how the EU should help Serbia when it is in crisis. This underlines that young people make their opinions based on the opinions of the media and environment. Usually do not know the facts.

Having that in mind, here is the final reason why Serbia’s young population is against European integration. There are a lot of stereotypes and clichés about the European Union, and too little simple, right and positive information in the media. Media reports about the European Union are very uninteresting and boring, presented in a bureaucratic language.

Last year, I had the opportunity to work one workshop on EU topic with high school students. I made some kind of experiment and I gave them to read one article dealing with Serbian EU accession process from a daily newspaper. Their task was to mark all words in that article which they did not understand. It’s hard to believe but it was, on average, every third word.

Also, it’s was very interesting and depressing that they do not realize what we have already been given in the process of EU integration and what theirs opportunities and possibilities are now, as young people at the border of the EU. It took me some time to explain them some more interesting things to them, as the EU programs for youth which is already available to them.

They asked me why this information couldn’t be found in daily news or TV. It was not so easy to explain them that. But the fact is that this kind of newsdoesn’t boost the sales of the newspaper. The result is that young Serbians feel isolated from the EU, they do not know what they can expect being a part of the European Union and what the accession means to their everyday lives or how it looks like what they will be European citizens.

As a conclusion the only thing that we can be sure of is that there is a long road ahead of us and a lot of challenges towards full EU membership. At the same time, the longer road is in front of Serbia towards finding and establishing systematic and strategic approach toward youth. We couldn’t afford to lose one more young generation. A small part of my generation decided to stay and wouldn’t give up for now. But, what about tomorrow? How long we could wait for wakeup call of Serbia?

Most of the Serbian society went to the polls last week, and that’s it. No, it shouldn’t be. So, it is necessary that Serbian society, especially young people, but also the European Union, get more engaged, if we want to bring about essential reforms.

This article is part a part of a series of reflections by young Europeans, prepared in cooperation between FutureLab and Süddeutsche Zeitung Online. To read the original click here.