Photograph of the bridge at Mostar
Building bridges in a troubled region. The bridge at Mostar. Photo ©

Pixabay, adapted from the original.

July 2018

As leaders met in London to discuss the future of the region at the Western Balkans Summit, we discuss the role the UK can play in the region after Brexit.

A troubled regions looks to the future

This week the UK brought together the leaders of Western Balkans countries and European partners to discuss strengthening security co-operation, increasing economic stability, and encouraging political co-operation. But given the challenges facing the region, what role should the UK be playing in the Western Balkans?

Twenty years after violent dissolution of Yugoslavia, Western Balkan countries remain troubled and vulnerable. Economic challenges are intertwined with political and socio-economic ones, ranging from pervasive corruption, failing rule of law, weak economies and institutions, and a growing youth unemployment rate.

The passage of time and failure in delivering reforms, coupled with the Euro crisis and uncertainty over whether enlargement will go ahead, has resulted in a sense of disillusionment among people across the region

The promise of EU membership has been a key driver for reform in Western Balkan countries in the past two decades. However the passage of time and failure in delivering reforms, coupled with the Euro crisis and uncertainty over whether enlargement will go ahead, has resulted in a sense of disillusionment among people across the region, as well as large public dissatisfaction with political elites.

Connected to this, violent extremism and Islamic radicalisation weigh high on the security agenda. From 2012 to 2012 chains of serious security incidents took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo and Macedonia. More than 1,000 foreign fighters departed for Syrian and Iraqi battlefields from the region, which is now facing the risks of serious ‘blow-back’ as fighters return to Europe. Though the governments have adopted more robust measures, and changes in counter-terrorism legislation have been introduced, radicalization remains an area of high concern.

Since the end of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the UK has been one of the leading contributors to peace building in the region. It has invested significant efforts over the past three decades in reforms and post-conflict resolution, particularly in BiH and Kosovo. 

A role for the UK?

One of the biggest challenges facing the region is the lack of opportunities for young people. Western Balkan countries register some of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world (BiH is ranked as number one with 62.8%, Macedonia as fourth with 53,1%, Serbia as seventh with 49,9%, and Montenegro as eleventh with 41,1%). The problem of “jobless growth” - a gap between job creation and the number of people seeking employment - has risen dramatically, and labour market is suffering from a severe skills mismatch. 

Poor socio-economic conditions and political instability are driving many young people away, prompting a brain drain on a large scale. Though it is hard to track exact data, the observation is frequently made that on average over 100,000 young people have emigrated from Serbia, BiH and Macedonia in the last few years. Faced with poor employment prospects, young people that remain in the region lack constructive pathways, and this may lead them to become more susceptible to extremism and radicalisation.

The UK should continue to invest in critical thinking, problem solving, and digital skills in the region, as this has proved invaluable for youth employment. In the mid- to long term, this could help contribute to closing the skills gap in the information technologies sector, which is another important policy concern of the governments meeting at the Summit. The £10 million investment announced at the summit for bolstering core and digital skills in the region is therefore a welcome start.

The UK can also provide expertise in education reform and entrepreneurship. This would give young people the skills to create opportunities for themselves and support wider economic growth. It could also help develop the capacities of hubs, start-ups, and small to medium enterprises working in, for example, technology, along with the sharing of UK expertise in the creation of sustainable business models. The UK can also play a part in developing the creative industries in the Western Balkans, creating opportunities for young people, showcasing UK expertise, and creating long term cultural links with the region. All this has the potential to have a real positive impact on prosperity in the region, and in turn on its trade with the UK and its stability.

Security remains a high concern in the region, and the UK should play a part in the response to it

Security remains a high concern in the region, and the UK should play a part in the response to it, by creating positive alternative pathways for young people at risk of radicalization. The focus on young people is crucial for long term stability and prosperity. It is in the UK’s interests and capabilities to strengthen constructive grassroots initiatives, empower young people, and strengthen the media and civil society. 

At a time when the region is experiencing a new phase of instability, with the potential shrinking of the political and civil society space across the region, the UK can support positive change by creating opportunities for young people, thereby meeting the demand for quality education and skills. It can also help to create positive pathways and opportunities for young people through civil society projects. All this could work wonders for a region still struggling to throw off the shackles of a troubled past. It could also help forge strong links between that region and the UK, which would benefit both in the long run.

Clare Sears, Director Western Balkans, Olga Mitrovic, Business Development Consultant, Western Balkans, & Emma Skelton, Policy & External Relations Officer, British Council

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