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Western Balkans: Looking From the Outside In

What does the EU mean to people in the Western Balkans?

July 15, 2017

What does the EU mean to people in the Western Balkans?

How different Europe looks when viewed from the vantage point of the people living on its edges. In England, it was economic hardship, inequality and political alienation that were the main reasons that led to the Brexit vote (and the planned separation from the EU).

Ironically, it is those same reasons that leads people in the Western Balkans to support EU membership. To them, the EU means freedom to travel (31%), freedom to work and study (32%) and economic prosperity (30%).

Unemployment (68%) and economic hardship (55%) remain the main concerns of the population in the Western Balkans.

A need for escape

The primary reason for emigration from the Western Balkans is clear: People are economically motivated to escape from a region known for slow development, high levels of corruption, poor rule of law and weak institutions.

Obviously, matters such as the quality of institutions matters more for skilled migrants. In contrast, unskilled migrants appear to be attracted by job opportunities and more generous social benefits in the Western European countries.

With an average per capita income of just $4,936 – equal to only 14% of the average per capita incomes of the EU countries ($34,860) – the EU’s attraction to people living in the Western Balkans is palpable.

With the dim prospects of the Western Balkans getting into the EU, the easiest way to the EU for its people has been through migration.

The free movement of people, an important pillar of the EU for those living within the Union, is a key element of attraction for people living in the Western Balkans. An astonishing 43% of them are thinking of moving abroad in the future.

With the exception of Kosovo, all the other Western Balkan countries benefit from the EU’s free movement of people visa free regime for short stays.

Kosovo has also been promised visa liberalization in the Schengen area. That move is conditioned upon reform in the rule of law and the fight against corruption, and ratification of the border demarcation agreement with Montenegro .

Hope meets reality

On the other side of the equation, immigration is becoming a red line for many countries in the EU. To the people living there, this is a rational response in the aftermath of the recent irregular migration and refugee crises.

In fact, immigration is the top concern for people in the EU. Although the EU’s demographic profile indicates a need in the future for foreign workers to bolster an aging workforce, its aggregate unemployment rate stands at 10% — and is more than double that level for youth unemployment.

This means that the EU labor market is far from ready to expand by absorbing new immigrants.

Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent those of her institutions or organizations.


To Balkan eyes, the attraction and advantages of EU membership or residency are palpable.

Balkan emigrants seek to escape slow development, corruption, poor rule of law and weak institutions

Freedom of movement appeals to a region with 43% expressing a desire to move abroad at some point.

The EU labor market is far from ready to expand by absorbing new immigrants.