Kosovo does not enjoy the equal EU perspective in comparison with other countries in the Western Balkans. While the neighbouring countries discuss about different stages of the EU integration process, Kosovo remains in search for visa liberalization. Nonetheless, the approval and support for the EU and integration process remains among the highest in the region, thus showing persistence to continue the reforms and complete the democratization process under the structured EU conditionality.

In addition to the multi-tiered challenges which are related to the lack of EU perspective, in the past two years, Kosovo has dealt with multiple political crisis which halted the EU related reforms. The change of four governments in the timespan of three years has had an impact on all relevant segments of life in the country.

This vacuum was further amplified with the COVID-19 pandemic which impacted the pace of commitments and dedication in delivering on the reforms on both – the Kosovo and the EU side. During this period, managing the pandemic with an underdeveloped healthcare system and securing vaccines took an immense amount of energy and dedication. Whereas the impact of the pandemic seriously challenged the already weak economy of Kosovo.

Just before the most unprecedented crisis of Covid-19 pandemic which shook the EU and the regions closely linked to the EU, the Conference on Future of Europe has been launched across the EU. It was heralded as one of the most important ongoing debates to shape the future of Europe. The debate left the Western Balkans formally excluded. This – of course – has been considered symbolically a very discouraging message for the region which aspired to be part of the EU, although does not enjoy the privilege of having a say in shaping the future of Europe.

The reaction to this has been lukewarm, the political elite did not engage actively in sending strong messages to the EU showing political will to be included in the Conference. Reactions predominantly came from the civil society organizations which have actively advocated to be included in the process.  Being left out, had a detrimental impact in Kosovo – which has been long taught by the EU on the importance of inclusiveness in decision making.

Kosovo has been introduced with the EU practices of public consultation, has been conditioned to follow strictly all EU practices in the process of policy making, has been invited to have a say on how the future of Europe (not of the EU) should look like. Thus, the practices pushed by the EU using the top-down approach through conditionality gradually started to fade out.

Not included by the EU and neglected by the Government of Kosovo, which has done minimal efforts to advocate for inclusion – similarly to other countries in the region – left the process in the hands of civil society initiatives to gather inputs through track two initiatives. Thus, this initiative support by the European Funds for the Balkans (EFB) has one aim, amplifying the voices of youth across the region, gather inputs on the vision of the youth for the future of Europe.

Voices of youth in Kosovo

Kosovo is one of the countries with the youngest population in the region, thus, youth represent a very important part of the society constantly advocating for their inclusion in the policy making processes. The level of dissatisfaction with the Governmental Kosovo remains quite high, especially on lacking strategy to include youth in – at least – designing policies concerning young people. This disappointment further increased with the EU which has the same discriminatory attitude toward youth when the debate of the future of Europe has been launched. Perceiving the EU as the biggest promoter of democracy and inclusion, as their biggest partner in empowering their voices, being left out of the process of deliberation raised many eyebrows in Prishtina.

Asked about the future of Europe, the inputs from Kosovo have gathered three main elements which are considered important in the eyes of the youth. The first element is empowering citizens voices. Deliberative democracy has been considered one of the most important elements directly linked with democratic values of the EU. The youth in Kosovo is aware of the power that the bottom-up deliberative approach provides for the citizens in the decision-making processes.

However, there is immense disappointment that the EU – which has introduced young people to mechanisms aiming to amplify their voices and has supported youth to not only be aware but also engage in such processes – to leave them out of the debate on the future of Europe. Furthermore, the exclusion of the youth from this debate further increases the scepticism on the enlargement process and the region being part of the EU in the near future.

The second element, investments in youth as the future of the country, region, and Europe. Youth in Kosovo seemingly is aware of the important role that the EU has played in advancing formal and informal education in Kosovo and the region. Furthermore, the EU programs such as Erasmus have been highly valued and appreciated especially for the importance of the cultural exchange element. Many of those who experienced these programs have shared the disappointment of not having a say on policies that determine policies in this field. Moreover, being the country with the youngest population, the contribution of Kosovo youth would be and added value. Last but not least, stability has been considered a key element in which Kosovo and the region would have contributed immensely.

Crisis in democracy within the EU requites multi-frontal approach and a unified approach of the EU member states and the region outside of it who are in the process of membership through EU conditionality. This crisis can be solved with the contribution of the Western Balkans as the key to not only stability but also in helping the EU complete the process of democratization in the region – once again proving the EU normative power.

Albeit not invited formally in the process, youth of Kosovo has participated in many track-two initiatives and exercises that enabled them to have a say in the process. In spite of the challenges and limitations due to lack of access and direct inclusion in the CoFoE, there is willingness to engage even from the country which stands at a critical point in the EU integration process and has been promised a clearer EU path only when political circumstances in the EU allow.

This analysis is part of the project titled “Enhancing the Role of the Western Balkans in the Future of Europe”, funded by the European Fund for the Balkans (EFB), in the frames of the BeeEFB Alumni Network.