The idea of creating a centralised structure for youth exchanges in the Western Balkans originates in the Berlin Process, an initiative by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel under which the countries of the Western Balkans aim to improve neighbourly relations with one other and create a closer relationship with the EU. A follow-up conference will take place in Vienna in August to discuss proposals for the youth field, too, with one possibility being the creation of a joint youth office or secretariat. Meanwhile, it’s no coincidence that the Franco-German Youth Office of all things is the organisation accompanying the Western Balkans delegation on its fact-finding mission. “We completed more than 400 projects in the Balkans over a 15-year period,” explains Frank Morawietz, who was responsible for drawing up the mission agenda and is accompanying the group. Morawietz has given the delegation an insight into the programmes and the modus operandi of the Franco-German Youth Office, organised meetings with representatives of other youth offices, ministries, NGOs and specialist organisations including IJAB and arranged appointments with foreign and youth policy experts. “The region is in urgent need of fresh ideas,” says Morawietz, “especially for the younger generation, many of whom are growing up in a narrow-minded, nationalistic environment. Transnational cooperation has long been established between civil society groups - now it’s time for government institutions to follow suit.”
Civil society groups set an example
Marija Bulat, secretary-general of Serbia’s National Youth Council
Marija Bulat, secretary-general of Serbia’s National Youth Council, confirms the existence of civil society cooperation across the Balkans. “For years we’ve been working closely with our neighbours, thanks to strong support from civil society groups. In that sense, the concept of a joint youth office is not entirely new for us; rather, it’s the logical extension of what is already being done,” she comments. While that sounds simple, in fact it’s not simple at all. The states of the Western Balkans are not the ethnically homogeneous nation-states that their founders aimed for. There are countless ethnic minority groups, with a constant danger that transnational exchanges could be instrumentalised to serve national interests that only benefit a country’s “own” members of minorities who live in the neighbouring countries. “That’s exactly what we don’t want, so it has to be prevented at all costs,” says Marija Bulat. “It’s crucial that a youth office remains independent to a certain degree from government influence.” Unlike some observers of the Balkans, Bulat wouldn’t say there is a hateful atmosphere in the region. “Of course, tensions occasionally erupt as result of actions by extremists and radical nationalists, but they are not representative. That said, we do feel that cooperation across the region needs to be improved. We are getting a lot of input from outside of the Balkans, which is helping our governments to move forward on this issue. So cooperation with European countries is vital for us,” she says.
Time and again the delegation’s discussions return to the technical challenges that have to be overcome before cooperation can go ahead. The future youth office may ultimately serve eight or even nine countries. Would a central office be the best solution, or should each state be given responsibility for a specific area? And then there’s the language issue. Would all the documents have to be produced in eight or nine languages? What would this mean for the meetings of the country representatives on the advisory council? Would there have to be eight or nine secretaries-general or should the countries take turns as chair? Should there be a consensus-based approach or would a majority-based system be better, given the large number of countries? How many members should an executive body be allowed to ensure it remains viable? Would all countries be appropriately represented if there were a cap? If the same rules that apply to the Franco-German or the German-Polish Youth Office were applied to the Western Balkans, an executive body could end up with 50 to 100 members, rendering effective decision-making highly unlikely.
Compromise is the way forward
Djuro Blanusa, adviser to Serbia’s Ministry of Youth and Sports
All involved parties are aware that a youth office will require political and financial backing from the governments. However, donors don’t just want to have a voice, they also want to influence decisions. In other words, there is a danger that bilateral tensions could also impact on the joint youth office. How can a balance of interests be maintained? Djuro Blanusa, adviser to Serbia’s Ministry of Youth and Sports, explains the historical reasons for the lack of a common approach. “I believe the Franco-German Youth Office functions so well because France and Germany have worked hard to reconcile their respective views of their shared history. That’s not happened in the Western Balkans. What’s seen in my country as a heroic deed is seen by another as a crime. This is a widespread problem in the Balkans, so politicians have plenty of opportunities to spread negativity,” he says. Still, he remains cautiously optimistic. “I live in the Balkans and wish no harm upon anyone here. And I believe that many of my fellow citizens feel the same way. As for the challenges that exist, they can only be overcome through compromise. I don’t think the large number of participating countries will be a problem. If that were the case, the European Union wouldn’t exist. As for the language issue, we’ll have to compromise there too. Of course each country has its own official language, but look at our delegation. On this fact-finding mission we’re all sitting in a room together and communicating well. In my opinion, using Serbo-Croatian, Albanian and maybe also Macedonian would suffice. That’s one possible compromise.”
The delegation’s timeline is ambitious. Originally the group had planned to produce a set of recommendations upon concluding the fact-finding mission. That plan has been scrapped; instead, the delegates intend to reflect on what they have learned in greater depth and also speak to their respective ministries. However, the recommendations will be produced in time for the follow-up conference in August. By then, it may already be clear whether setting up a youth office for the Western Balkans is a realistic option.