The Balkans in the New Decade: Regional Opportunities Ahead
The Balkans’ most valuable regional asset lies in the young, progressive, educated population. It can become the catalyst for the transformation of the region.
- The Balkans’ most valuable regional asset lies in the young, progressive, educated population. It can become the catalyst for the transformation of the region.
- The Balkans’ most significant threat is the mass exodus of its youth. Already, the Balkans contain several of the top ten declining populations in the world.
- In order to stem the loss of young talent, the next generation in the Balkans must have access to improved modern education and economic opportunities.
- The lack of physical and digital connectivity between the Balkan nations has a definite negative impact on the chance for further integration and cooperation within the region.
- Realistically the Balkan region has a decade before it will be considered seriously for membership of the EU. Its leaders must make that decade count.
EU membership needs to remain a priority and part of the future vision for the entire region of Southeast Europe. However, the region has to provide creative and long-term solutions to its many internal challenges.
To help mitigate this reality, the Balkans need to emphasize development and initiatives at the regional level. This is crucial to strengthen the countries’ socio-political and economic outlook in the 2020s.
Without a doubt, delaying the process of EU enlargement has created a vacuum that can result in socio-political instability, slower economic growth and growing foreign influence.This is actually helpful in so far as it forces smart minds in the region to seek internal solutions and opportunities for further regional cooperation and integration.
In order to understand the challenges and opportunities to regional cooperation, these questions must be answered:
1. Is it possible for the region to move forward with socio-economic and political transformation without immediate access to the EU family?
2. How to create a conducive environment where countries in the Balkans will prosper from a mutually beneficial regional environment?
The Balkans’ most valuable regional asset lies in the young, progressive, educated population. It can become the catalyst for the transformation of the region’s socio-economic and political future.
Many experts believe that the greatest threat to the Balkans, in the next decade and those to come, is the threat of social and political instability. Indeed, the region could once again become a microcosm of global tensions with the major world powers continuing to enlarge their sphere of influence.
In truth, the Balkans’ most significant threat is the mass exodus of its youth. Already, the Balkans contain several of the top ten declining populations in the world.
Estimates are that by 2050, Albania, Croatia, and Serbia will lose 15% of their total current population. In order to stem the loss of young talent, the next generation in the Balkans must have access to improved modern education and economic opportunities. This is perhaps the most important point member nations ought to keep in mind.
The importance of education
For example, educational exchanges will encourage cross-border exchange of intellectual knowledge and the shared use of innovative technologies within the region.
Also, communication and job opportunities across borders would improve social and psychological understanding, and communication between members of the younger generations.
It is important to initiate regional roundtable discussions with progressive leaders from the IT, telecommunications, agriculture, media, energy, healthcare and other sectors. Their task is to identify and implement specific, concrete actions to be executed by grassroots organizations and institutions.
The strength of this approach comes from the involvement of the people on the ground who can access the knowledge and power of the socio-economic leaders. The emphasis should remain on identifying smart solutions that will utilize highly developed technologies to bring the region to an advanced level of technological, social, economic and educational development.
Laying the groundwork
Several mechanisms and initiatives exist. They include the Multi-Annual Action Plan for a Regional Economic Area in the Balkans (MAP REA), the Western Balkans 6 Chamber Investment Forum (WB6 CIF) and the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA). These initiatives have already laid the groundwork for the expansion and promotion of trade, investment, integrity and digital integration.
The lack of physical and digital connectivity between the Balkan nations has a definite negative impact on the chance for further integration and cooperation within the region.
While social media connects at a superficial level, it does not lead to regional participation in creative business solutions that have a positive impact on regional startups and small and medium-sized enterprises. Hence the need to develop regional connectivity platforms to empower the progressive and business-orientated youth.
These platforms will spark long-lasting impact by creating jobs, retaining talented professionals and stimulating the development of a healthy ecosystem.
For example, startups could use such platforms to source talented staff from the region or to identify areas of synergy between successful startups from across the region.
This collaboration creates cross-region partnerships that can then create a competitive global edge and develop end-to-end products.
Cooperating in this way increases the startups’ global competitiveness, attraction for foreign investment, all of which leads to further job opportunities.
Next, Initiating transparent connectivity infrastructure projects would address the region’s urgent needs to upgrade both its digital and physical infrastructure. After all, some of the worst roads and rail systems in the region exist within these nations.
While several regional capitals are connected with daily flights, a car ride between Sarajevo and Pristina is still an eight-hour drive.
Developing cross-regional business
Most importantly, supporting further physical and digital connectivity and developing cross-regional businesses would be the most effective way to alleviate the social, political and economic challenges facing the Balkans—to prepare the region for eventual membership in the European Union.
One thing is for sure, these solutions provide the only hope for the Balkans to develop a positive outlook in the coming decade and for the region to transform itself before becoming a member of the EU.
This approach creates the possibility of developing a vibrant regional economy that promotes cultural exchanges and understanding. It also has a chance to ensure peace and prosperity for generations to come.
Additionally, the European Union could unanimously support the delayed enlargement process for the region.
Elusive EU Membership
While the Balkans continue to look toward joining the European Union as the main geopolitical objective of the region, it is likely that EU membership will remain an unattainable goal in the new decade.
Instead of seeking external support to solve domestic and regional challenges, the Balkans must develop a socio-political and environmental climate that will move their ecosystem forward independently.
This would demonstrate to the EU, and to the people in the region that have lost faith in local politicians, that they can move away from its historic legacy of being “the Powder Keg.” It would prove they can achieve instead a progressive environment with economic potential based on the values and ambitions that helped shape the EU.
While the suggested change sounds ambitious, historically, the accession process moves slowly. And if realistically the region has a decade before it will be considered seriously for membership in the EU, the Balkans must ensure that its leaders, on all fronts, make that decade count.