How attractive the European Union is in times of crisis for the Western Balkans was the topic of the panel discussion at the Center for Art and Urbanistics in Berlin. On the podium were representatives from the politics, academia, and media. The audience included around 120 students from the Western Balkan countries - participants of the program "Travel to Europe".
It became clear right from the beginning how important traveling for young people from Western Balkan countries is. Helge Tolksdorf, head of section EU Enlargement, Southeast Europe and Turkey in the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, talks about his own experiences. "I grew up in East Germany. My very first trip was to Bulgaria." If you hear how enthusiastically Tolksdorf talks about his travels and the life-long friendships that resulted from them, it is no wonder that, today, he is advocating for the accession of the Western Balkan countries to the European Union (EU). The easing of visa requirements is one of his achievements that the students have just heard about.
Adelheid Wölfl, correspondent for Southeastern Europe at the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, reports on the difficulty of traveling between the individual Balkan countries even today. She lives in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and often travels along refugee routes through the Balkans for her research.
"You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to get from one country to another by train or car." She also states that communication is not easy. "I have multiple cell phones and SIM cards; I need a separate one for each country." She hopes for the Western Balkan countries to join the EU soon so that this will change. She is often asked by local residents why refugees from Arab countries are allowed into the EU but they are not.
The discussion leads from travel to the topic of economics and politics in the Western Balkan countries. Alida Vračić, research associate at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (German Institute for International and Security Affairs - SWP), emphasizes how pro-European she is. Since 2007, she has been CEO and cofounder of the Populari think tank in Sarajevo, which encourages young people to change their way of thinking. "We desperately need a change regarding politics and social issues." That is why joining the EU is so important. All you have to do is look at the numbers from the World Bank report. In Bosnia, for example, unemployment among young people is between 35 and 60 percent, and the growth of the GNP is between 0 and 0.3 percent. Vračić challenges the students to help out, "because you are the present and future of the Balkans. So consider carefully what you want and - above all - what you want to change!"
The students now have four weeks to get to know Europe and to gather their thoughts on the subject. For most of them, this is their first opportunity to travel through the countries of the European Union. After two days in Berlin, they will travel by train to Amsterdam and other European cities.