“Will the last person to leave, turn off the lights? Tackling demographic challenges in the Western Balkans”

On 4 March 2020, Jable castle hosted a group of some 40 experts, practitioners, state officials, diplomats, students and civil society representatives to discuss demographic challenges of the Western Balkan (WB) countries in the context of brain drain and possibility of turning it into brain circulation. Organized by Centre for European Perspective (CEP) in cooperation with Central European Initiative (CEI), the event took place within the framework of Young Bled Strategic Forum (Young BSF).

The closed morning session aimed to outline the demographic challenges of WB region and shed a light on the brain drain, as well as identify good practices and policies. The main guiding questions were: Are there ways to stop the brain drain? Is it productive to think of ways to stop it? How can we turn brain drain into brain circulation? What good practices can EU countries offer in this regards? Are there any state-sponsored activities or programs tackling the issue that could be presented as good practices? Are governments doing something to re-attract skilled workers and highly educated individuals into their home countries? Are countries with a large diaspora in any way profiting from this?

The second part, open to general public, hosted various experts in the field who discussed the conclusions from the first session, as well as offered insights into potential solutions to the brain drain issue. The event was opened by Nina Kodelja, Deputy Secretary General of CEI, who stressed that demographic issues affect the societal tissue profoundly. Katja Geršak, Executive Director of CEP, continued with the presentation of good practices that CEP and Slovenia are implementing through development projects. In addition, Andor Dávid, Executive Director of International Visegrad Fund (IVF) shared some thoughts on entrepreneurship, where he stressed that entrepreneurial and innovation spirit have to be awoken at an early age. He added that IVF activities in the WB region focus on future jobs, which do not exist yet but could offer a new impetus to local communities in the future.     

The discussants, Dafina Peci, Secretary General at National Youth Congress of Albania, Jernej Štromajer, State Secretary at the Ministry of Education of Slovenia, and Anja Fortuna, President of National Youth Council of Slovenia, agreed there are numerous reasons to why people decide to move, while we should seek deeper reasons to why this occurs. Healthcare, housing, family policies, educational system, democratic performance, environment policies etc. all play an important role when trying to turn brain drain into brain circulation. They also agreed that governments should, through a mix of different policies, offer incentives for youth to stay in their home countries.

Concluding remarks were offered by Peter Grk, Secretary General of Bled Strategic Forum and National Coordinator for the Western Balkans from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia, who stressed that what the WB region is lacking are the “lights” (hope), while currently there are no lights to be turned off, paraphrasing the title of the round table. “Both the EU and WB countries need to stop pretending and start creating favourable conditions for youth in the region”, stressed Grk.

Meliha Muherina, Programme Director of the Young BSF, moderated the event.

Concrete policy recommendations on the topic discussed will follow in the upcoming weeks.