On Tuesday and Wednesday, 4-5 May, a two-day event was held within the initiative Make Future Together: EU and the Western Balkans from the Youth Perspective. The event was organised by the European Policy Centre (EPC), Brussels-based think tank (EPC) in collaboration with the Think for Europe Network (TEN). These events, held online, represented the conclusion of this initiative. It was preceded by youth consultation processes held in all Western Balkan countries, whose aim was to gain input from the local youth and provide a solid base for further discussions in the rest of Europe. What has additionally increased the importance of the event was the fact that in just two weeks around 400 people from the Western Balkans signed a petition, launched by TEN, calling for development of a Manifesto that will contain the views, concerns, and solutions of the youth, by the youth, and for the youth, with the key focus on digital freedoms and internet use.
On the first day of the event, youth representatives from each of the Western Balkan countries gathered in a closed-door meeting. Participants were selected out of the group of young delegates who participated at the national consultations that had been organised at the end of last year within the same project (you can find more about them here). This was the first time the representatives from the entire region gathered in one place to jointly address common challenges they face on this topic. Acknowledging the support gather by those that had already signed the petition, representatives engaged in group discussion with the idea of drafting of the Manifesto on Digital Space. Moreover, they discussed what they considered as necessary to be included in such an initiative. This type of debate and inclusion of young people is unique in Europe and reflects the will of the Western Balkans to provide its contribution to the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe.
On the second day of the event, the conference Make future together: Young people in the Balkans speak up on digital issues took place. In the event, the key points of the draft Manifesto were presented by Lola Paunović, Junior Researcher at the European Policy Centre – CEP Belgrade. The position and attitudes of the youth were also presented by one of the participants from the first meeting, Tasneem Nasufović, a youth representative from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Education is a crucial factor to start from, where different stakeholders can play a role and contribute to an environment that will lead to a safer and more empowering digital space,” she highlighted.
After these introductory speeches, the panel discussion was held, with the following panellists: Stephanie Borg Psaila, Director for Digital Policy, Editor, and GIP Digital Watch observatory, from Diplo Foundation, Nikola Popović, Member of the International Board, European Youth Parliament, Alberto Rabbachin, Program Officer, Media Convergence & Social Media, DG CONNECT, European Commission, Paul Butcher, Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre – EPC. The moderator was Corina Stratulat, Senior Policy Analyst from EPC. They discussed what do the Balkan youth consider to be the biggest benefits and drawbacks of internet and social media, what kind of regulation they would like to see, and which actors should bear responsibility for enforcing it. Additionally, discussion reflected on how EU policymakers can learn from the deliberations which the youth engaged in. They gave their comments on the Manifesto and their opinions on what this exercise says about the Western Balkans’ ability to contribute to the Conference on the Future of Europe.
Paul Butcher presented a discussion paper written by Corina Stratulat and him, named “Balkan youth speaks up about digital issues: Lessons for the Conference on the Future of Europe”. You can download the paper here. In the paper, it was highlight that the “Make Future Together: EU and the Western Balkans from the Youth Perspective” project is one recent experiment in participatory democracy that speaks of the potential of the Balkan countries to add value to the Conference on the Future of Europe.
Dr. Psalia pointed out that the EU with its regulatory framework already has a lot of influence on countries outside the EU, and that this can best be seen in two examples: the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the EU’s regulatory framework for artificial intelligence. When it comes to regulation, the EU representative, Alberto Rabbachin, emphasized that “although we must involve the state in regulation processes, we must be careful not to create the” Ministry of Truth.“ Lastly, Nikola Popović pointed out that social media is used as a two-way tool by the youth, meaning that young people need to learn how to use the tool, but also be aware that the same tool can be used against them. With this, Popović shed a light on the importance of education in the process of digitalization and reflected that the civil society of the region does play a crucial role in such a process.
Overall, the two-day event represented a unique exercise that allowed the Western Balkan youth to have their voice heard by the wider audiences at the European level. This sets good ground for further activities in the area of youth inclusion in decision-making and policy deliberation. For more information on this initiative, visit www.mladirini.org – a platform for young people in all languages of the Western Balkans, as well as in English. The platform features several blogs, podcasts, and infographics on environmental protection, information technology, democracy, and the rule of law.