When people think about the Balkans, it is most often as the ‘powder keg’ of Europe: a region that produces more history than it can consume. But this small group of countries next door to the European Union has been trying for more than two decades to change this stereotype. After fierce ethnic conflicts during the 1990s the Western Balkans have been moving towards the prospect of EU integration.

The joint EU accession project remains the major inspiration for peace, stability and security in the Western Balkans, whose history, culture, society and economy are inseparably linked to those of the rest of Europe. But ethnic divides are set to remain a source of instability; the enduring legacy of ancient conflicts.

The prevailing perception of the Western Balkans is that of a divided and distrustful society. I became aware of this divide as a student in Sarajevo in 2000. Bombarded buildings show a town’s suffering much better than the bitter stories of its residents. I also saw the immense impact of ethnic conflicts on the younger generation. We mixed very little with the ‘others’ – those of a ‘different’ ethnicity – whose parents or grandparents were responsible for certain past events. The scars of conflict were still fresh. Young people, despite their energy and forward-looking nature, were not yet ready to place themselves at the head of the much-needed reconciliation process.

“Conflicts of the past have left behind prejudices and intolerance”

Many hoped that time would heal the wounds. But even the young people today who have never experienced a single day of war have grown up in divided societies. The conflicts of the past have left behind prejudices and intolerance, exploited in propaganda by nationalists who consider young people to an easy target and a Balkanised generation. We see young people fighting at football matches or singing nationalist songs; it is clear that the hoped-for reconciliation has not yet arrived. This process needs time and – more importantly – work.

Reconciliation is essential for lasting peace. Reconciliation needs simultaneous top-down and bottom-up processes. And reconciliation needs effective leadership, including the efforts of ordinary citizens and (in particular) younger generations, to propel societies away from a divided past and towards a shared future.

There are lessons from elsewhere. The Franco-German Youth Office was established in 1963 to bring the young people of these countries together after two world wars. The Western Balkans is using this model today as a source of inspiration. During the 2016 Paris Western Balkans Summit an agreement was signed to set up the Regional Youth Cooperation Office. RYCO, a joint initiative of the prime ministers of Albania and Serbia, with its seat in the Albanian capital Tirana, is designed to nurture a spirit of reconciliation and cooperation among young people in the region; to strengthen bonds and promote mutual understanding. Recently there have been positive developments in this area, particularly thanks to top-level political exchanges. But political deals alone do not have the power to boost such cooperation.

Substantial reconciliation requires regional cooperation. Good neighbourhood relations can be forged only through constructive and peaceful dialogue among citizens, young people included. At a time when nationalist and populist rhetoric is gaining ground in Europe, including in the Western Balkans, young people have a responsibility to take an active stand against it.

Politicians should reject nationalism and trust young people, allowing them to take a leading role in maintaining dialogue and building bridges of friendship. Today’s young people are tomorrow’s decision-makers: they will have responsibility for ensuring sustainable security and stability in the region, as well as continued socio-economic development and further integration into the European family.

“Good neighbourhood relations can be forged only through constructive and peaceful dialogue among citizens”

This could be a hard process in a region where the wounds of conflict have not yet healed. But there is no viable alternative. European integration is a shared goal and challenge; it serves as the motivation to achieve reconciliation. But the long waiting time to join the EU, social problems arising from unemployment, slow economic growth and the lack of trust in weak institutions combine to create disappointment among young people, who tend to view themselves as a ‘lost generation’. Our societies cannot risk wasting their potential, which would seriously threaten the region’s long-term development.

The RYCO may have just taken its first steps, but there are big expectations. This does not mean that there were no such exchanges prior to this initiative or that it will immediately solve all the problems facing young people in the region. But a regional organisation that guides and coordinates cooperation among young people would strengthen the overall reconciliation process. It has the potential to gather momentum and lend a new perspective to reconciliation. Regional cooperation can only truly become a real success story in Western Balkans when it lives in the hearts and minds of its young people.

To this end, this initiative need to be associated with new policies to stimulate economic growth, create new jobs, consolidate the rule of law and democratic institutions, ensure observance of human rights and fight against corruption and organised crime. These actions would help ensure the future that our young people deserve, bringing them closer to the promise of Europe.

For the EU, stability, security and prosperity in this region are of special interest. So Europe needs to invest in young people and keep their part of the promise. Young people in the Balkans have much to offer for the future: energy, an awareness of the past, and the ability to play an active role in building a common European future.

IMAGE CREDIT: Borodin/Bigstock