Young People Are Leaving The Balkans In Droves - Joining The EU Won't Stop Them

In all the discussions about EU enlargement, a fundamental challenge has been overlooked: Young people across the western Balkans are leaving in droves because they feel there is no future for them.

Even as Serbia and Montenegro teeter on the cusp of EU membership, a record number of young, educated people are being driven to find jobs elsewhere, and tend not to come back.

More than that, the task of nurturing young people and developing opportunities for employment across the western Balkans has been given insufficient attention by governments. Rather than stem the exodus of young talent that is harming the economy of the entire region, too much reliance is being placed on being part of the bloc, and on foreign investment not yet materialized.

The more thoughtful parts of the EU suggest that in forging closer economic ties with Serbia, European companies will help reduce unemployment, especially amongst young people.

During his visit to Belgrade, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani singled out the scholarships awarded to Serbian students and higher education teachers through Erasmus, the program which facilities student exchanges. The real challenge, however, will be persuading them to return, and—on a much wider scale—retaining the talent and skills that already exist in Serbia so that they contribute to growth.

Only two years ago, Serbia had the ignominious honor of being second in the world to lose the most of its highly intellectual citizens in proportion to its population, with electrical engineers, doctors, dentists and economists leading the charge. In 2015, a record 58,000 people left, driven away by poor job prospects, low wages and stagnant living standards.

Since then, Serbia's economy has turned a corner with China and other countries recognizing the strategic significance of the western Balkans. World-class companies and banks have branched into Serbia; factories have opened and billions spent in infrastructure projects.

Under President Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia has also started to invest in young people; cutting a swathe through bureaucracy, encouraging entrepreneurship and promoting digitalization and artificial intelligence that will align Serbia with the rest of the world.

Other states that fail this generation do so at their peril, as we know from our past. Allowed to flourish, however, young people can be drivers of creativity and innovation in the western Balkans; fuel economic growth in their home countries and bring about positive change. They are also less likely to be tainted by historical differences—providing the best hope for future stability and peace with our neighbors.

Serbia's EU membership
Serbia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic (L) greets the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini (R) during the EU Informal Meeting of Foreign Affairs Ministers, on April 28, 2017 in Valletta, Malta. MATTHEW MIRABELLI/AFP/Getty Images

While the European Commission has this week renewed the path to membership for six western Balkan states—with Serbia and Montenegro as forerunners—it would be a mistake to look towards integration as cure-all. Young people in particular remain highly skeptical, wearied by years of neglect and broken promises.

In a recent opinion poll conducted by the Ministry for European Integration, just 15 percent of Serbians said they believed integration with the EU will provide a better perspective to young people. Most of them have been hearing these messages since primary school, and still feel little has been gained.

Probably for the first time, entrepreneurship provides a sustainable solution to the extensive 'brain drain' faced by the western Balkans. Fostering a culture of innovation needs to start at school, so that ideas can be channeled into core growth sectors such as agriculture, creative industries, construction and Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

Helping young people fulfil their potential also means serious commitment from private investors and commercial banks, who must open accessible credit lines to micro and small businesses and allow them to expand and create new jobs.

Companies investing the western Balkans should also recognise they also have an important role to play. Foreign investment cannot only favour the investor. They must be encouraged to share their knowledge, business and finance skills as well as their extensive resources to help young Serbians. One way to do this is opening new enterprise hubs for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and share ideas.

The EU has pledged its support; now governments across the region must also recognise that keeping their young people is crucial to their future stability and success.

At times like this, we must reflect on Kofi Annan's observation about youth: "Young people should be at the forefront of global change and innovation. Empowered, they can be key agents for development and peace. If, however, they are left on society's margins, all of us will be impoverished."

Vladimir Krulj is a former advisor to the Serbian Government on EU integration and an Economics Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a prominent U.K. free market think tank.You can follow him on Twitter.