During the last decade the European integration process of the Western Balkans has proceeded rather slowly, leading to disappointment and disillusion among the local population. The governments’ delivering on reform agendas has been characterized of hiccup progress and over time thousands of people –many highly qualified- have decided to move out of their countries and settle for study or work purposes in EU member states.

According to Eurostat, out of 236.000 first residence permits issued by the EU member states in 2021 to Western Balkan and Turkish citizens, 23% are Albanians, followed by 19% Serbians and 14% from Bosnia and Herzegovina. When compared to the residence permits issued back in 2013, the figures are almost doubled, with a constant haemorrhage of work force moving out of the region. Focusing particularly on Albania, the preferred destinations of the last five years remain Germany and France, with respectively almost 77.000 and 33.000 new residence permits issued only in 2021.

In front of the Russian aggression still ongoing in Ukraine, the reinvigoration of the enlargement process in 2023 has provided for an opportunity to defy the status quo in the region. In particular, the Berlin Process is moving forward the promotion of enlargement objectives in the Balkans, thanks also to the Union’s recently adopted growth plan for the region. The Berlin Process seeks to provide a concrete mechanism that can push forward the operationalization of regional cooperation in concrete policy areas among the six countries.

By focusing on concrete initiatives that transversally cross the interests of the countries of the region, the Berlin Process today is paving the way towards the regional economic integration, as well as to its prospective integration into the EU Single Market – considered a clear carrot for the reforms. This is a significative development that can contribute to delineating a revived perspective for the younger generations to remain in their countries. Aware that the EU membership will take time, via the sectoral integration in the EU Single Market, the region’s inhabitants will have the chance to ripe off the first benefits from the implementation of the four freedoms, namely the freedom of movement of citizens, goods, capitals and services.

Regional mobility agreements

The coupling of the current demographic decline and youth migration trends from the region has raised serious concerns not only for the work and life perspective of the younger generations, but also for the future of the WB6 countries and the region in a mid- to long-term perspective. The WB6 leaders to a certain extent have understood that there is no time left to lose and the moment has come to turn their verbal promises into tangible results.

“Our young people want a brighter, more optimistic future. A future that is fair, prosperous and full of opportunities”, declared Charles Michel, President of the European Council, during the Summit of the leaders in Tirana on 15 October.

The Chair’s Conclusions adopted at the 2023 summit recognize that the advancement of a gradual integration at the regional level of the WB6 education, science and youth policies, as well as within the wider EU space, reflects a grounded demand raised by the youngsters in different occasions. In this regard, the Western Balkans Youth Forum declaration 2023 -an annual event that sees the participation of youth representatives from the region-, highlights two essential cross-cutting themes, namely the issue of quality education and youth mobility.

Reinforcing connectivity in education matters remains key to derail from the current worrying trends in the Western Balkans, as well as to fuelling hope that everyone can be a “European citizen” in his/her home country. The improvement of existing practices and boosting of new regional initiatives are expected to positively affect young people’s skills development and civic participation, with positive spill-over effects on greater public awareness and democracy enhancement at the domestic level.

At the Summit of Sofia back in November 2020, the WB6 governments, facilitated by the European Commission, embarked on the establishment of a Common Regional Market, which mirrors the Union’s single market and related four freedoms. In this framework, after two years of negotiations, in 2022 it was made possible the signature of three mobility agreements, namely: (i) on recognition of higher education qualifications; (ii) on recognition of professional qualifications for doctors of medicine, dentists and architects; and, (iii) on freedom of movement with identity cards. A fourth agreement on the recognition of professional qualifications for nurses, veterinary surgeons, midwives and pharmacists was signed during this year’s summit of the Berlin Process in Tirana.

The recognition of higher education qualifications in multiple countries in the wider European space remains a vital development for many professionals, since it facilitates brain circulation, capacity-building as well as integration in other local societies beyond the national borders. In the globalized context where we are living in, ensuring the adoption of such practices is two-fold convenient for any government, as it opens up the local market to incoming specialized fluxes of professionals as well as it contributes to its integration to those of other economies. Nonetheless, the direct beneficiaries of these agreements are young professionals in the early stage of their career, who seek to gain international experience, technical knowledge and new skills, in line with the requests of the job market.

The signature of these agreements is seen as a breakthrough for region’s cooperation and economic integration, which fosters trust between the local societies and overcomes ethnic divisions and hate. The inclusion of these agreements within the wider framework of Common Regional Market sends a positive signal to the constituencies that there is a political will to bring forward the process of deeper regional economic integration and create new opportunities for the younger generations.

“The concerted efforts we put towards mutual recognition of a new set of professions, which now amount to 7 in total, fully based on EU rules – is another symbolic entry ticket to the single market as it can be a crucial step towards recognition of professional qualifications with the EU”, noted Majlinda Bregu, Secretary General of Regional Cooperation Council.

The removal of obstacles for these categories of professionals and the free movement with ID cards contribute to boosting region’s competitiveness and growth, as a first step towards the greater ambition to join the EU Single Market. The process of economic growth and competitiveness, expansion of the regional job market goes hand in hand with the human resources’ development.

In this perspective, an important contribution is expected from the recently adopted New Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, which targets the economic convergence of the region. Within this ambitious plan of measures, which is accompanied by a 6 billion euros financial envelop, due attention has been paid to the pillars on the free movement of services and workers. The priority action on the recognition of skills and qualifications between the WB6 and the EU builds on the four mobility agreements already signed in the context of Common Regional Market, which will lead to wider a reduction of time and costs for the process as well as an equal treatment of those youngsters graduated in the WB countries and in the rest of the European space. This priority action makes it easier for youth to move abroad for study or mobility purposes, removing the existing barriers to learning and working. Furthermore, it contributes also to bringing closer the Balkan graduates with their peers around EU, and incentivizes the brain circulation process. Differently from the past, the future generations are expected to be more prone to acquiring new experiences in multiple countries throughout their lifespan, and the new knowledge can lead to positive spill-over effects for the WB6 convergence. Now it remains to be seen which are the specific measures that will encourage and financially support the youngsters to move in the region for given period of time. Certainly, some financial schemes are deemed essential for the spin off phase of regional mobility, which will later on generate new spill-over effects on the national economies.

The leaders of tomorrow: Better education and skills

2023 is being celebrated across Europe as the European Year of Skills, with the aim to boost a new momentum and specific attention to all those policy initiatives that promote quality education, technical knowledge as well as address skills shortage in the job market.

Under the Berlin Process framework, particular attention has been paid over time to youth, education and research, recognizing the importance that access to education and removal of barriers to learning are contributing factors to region’s overall development. On the same line stand also the Commission’s New Growth Plan that seeks to prioritize the shared commitment to include the Western Balkans in the wider European Education Area and bridge close cooperation between academic institutions.

An important advocacy work in this direction has been done by the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO), a Balkan-wide non-governmental body born out of the Berlin Process. An analysis of RYCO annual youth forum conclusions shows that youth constantly demand for more empowerment and collaboration with the decision-makers so as to bring forward the issue of better education, which in turn would allow for greater chances of employment and better quality of life.

As noted also in the Chair’s Conclusions of 2023, region’s youth recognize the importance of and underlines the need to take actions on “strengthening and expanding current regional mechanisms and EU schemes to further benefit youth mobility and cultural exchanges in the Western Balkans”. Such investments would be beneficial for their personal skills development as well as general reconciliation of the region. However, none of such opportunities would be materialized if the region’s government do not allocate adequate funding to improving existing infrastructure and supporting the access of different categories of the society.

Quality education and accessibility should be offered to anyone, for a just and equal society. In this perspective, the opening of the third branch of the College of Europe in Tirana and the issuing of more than 15 scholarships out of 31 places is commendable since it allows greater accessibility based on personal achievements and merits. The postgraduate studies at the College will both prepare new professionals on the EU integration process -a sensitive issue for the current public administrations of the Balkans that suffer from a lack of skills-, as well as will bring closer youngsters coming from the region and beyond. Moreover, it is a new initiative to reverse the general trend of educational mobility, as the region’s youth is not the only one migrating for study purposes in the EU member states, but also their citizens are coming to the Balkans. While in political terms this new trend contributes to the improvement of the image of the region, in practice it is also beneficial for mutual cooperation and understanding.

One step at a time

The signature of three agreements on the recognition of the higher education qualifications and given professional qualifications marks a positive step forward, since it facilitates the administrative procedures for the recognition of the degree in the other countries. Once the agreements enter into force, the approval process will last up to fourteen days and there will be no processing fees for the applicants. The main beneficiaries will be the students, academic staff and in general professionals interested in acquiring new experiences and technical skills in the region. The specific procedures of diploma recognition in each country will be made available in the respective websites of the ministries dealing with education portfolio, once the agreements enter into force.

The higher the mobility of human resources in the region is expected to lead to greater competitiveness between the countries, pushing so each government to invest more in making the respective country more attractive in terms of social security benefits, improved working conditions, competitive wages, etc.

Furthermore, in face of the digitalisation process that is currently taking place in Europe, particular categories of professionals active in the IT sector can be among the first beneficiaries of the mobility agreements, since the request for such expertise and technical capacities ranks high in the Balkans and beyond.

At the moment, the ratification of the mobility agreements is progressing, although initially with a slow pace. This year’s agreement concerning nurses, pharmacists, etc. has not entered yet the ratification procedures in any of the six countries. Whereas regarding the previous three agreements, Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia have successfully concluded the ratification process. In the case of Montenegro, the three agreements got ratified by the parliament in mid-December 2023 and within a short period of time the President will sign them. Finally, in Bosnia and Herzegovina the situation is somehow more complexed due to the multi-level governing system between the national authorities and the federations. Bosnia and Herzegovina concluded the ratification process of the two agreements on the recognition of academic qualifications and of the professional qualifications of doctors of medicine, dentists and architects, but there is no progress regarding the one on travelling with ID cards. The resistance comes from the authorities of Republika Srpska due to the non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence Herzegovina.

In conclusion, young people from the region and youth organizations in general should continue to monitor and advocate for a swift ratification and implementation of the mobility agreements. This is only a first step that will allow to the young professionals to start gaining some experience and skills in the region. The second step is to continue advocating for financial supporting schemes that allow to everyone to participate in the educational and/or professional experiences in the region, besides the recognition of the social security contributions accumulated during one’s temporary stays in the six countries of the region.

About the Author

Gentiola Madhi works as researcher and media writer at OBC Transeuropa in Italy. She has an extensive research experience in the Balkans, focusing on regional cooperation and European integration process, with a particular attention on youth and civil society dimension. Gentiola is part of the first cohort of AIEN alumni and regularly contributes with policy analyses and talks. She graduated from the College of Europe (Belgium) and the University of Florence (Italy).

*This publication was funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the Academy of European Integrations and Negotiations and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.