High emigration rates are doing massive damage to the prospects of the Western Balkans — and one question is whether a stronger EU perspective can reverse this outflow. By Alida Vracic
At a high-level gathering in Bled, Slovenia, Nikola Dimitrov, North
Macedonia’s Foreign Minister, recently expressed the hope that his
country’s EU accession talks will start in October. He also pointed
out that a start to accession talks would help persuade young people
not to emigrate and seek a “European life-style” elsewhere. This was
a rare occasion when a top politician from the Western Balkans
addressed emigration as an issue, and expressed hope that the trend
could be halted with the right decisions and with the prospects of
joining the EU. A big question, however, is whether opening EU
accession talks, or even eventual membership, will actually
persuade young and skilled women and men to stay in the region.
The answer gets more complicated when the Western Balkan six —
Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia
— are compared with neighbouring Croatia. There, emigration rates
have skyrocketed since — and despite — EU membership in 2013.
Many Croats hoped that EU accession would provide enough
incentives for people to stay in Croatia, but this did not happen. So,
can a little EU magic help? To most observers of the region, the
situation looks grim in terms of emigration.
The latest Eurostat figures say around 230,000 people left the
region in the past year. The largest number emigrated from Albania
— 62,000. This was followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina (53,500),
Serbia (51,000), Kosovo (34,500), North Macedonia (24,300) and
Montenegro (3,000). Gallup research has meanwhile shown that
about 46 per cent of people in Serbia aged 15 to 29 want to leave
with no intention of returning. Twenty-seven per cent of those with
higher education expressed a wish to leave permanently. This comes
at a cost to their countries.
According to a Westminster Foundation report from 2019, with four
out of five young Serbs thinking about emigrating, this human
outflow could potentially cost Serbia up to 1.2 billion euros per year
No country in the region can afford this — but it is happening. The
situation is similar in other countries in the region and these
numbers should impress on everyone a sense of urgency.
Compared with the economies of Western Europe, the countries of
the region have little to offer. The six Western Balkan countries are
still among the poorest in Europe and their pace of convergence
with European standards is slow. Most of the local political elites
appear more focused on personal gains and private business
interests than on the public good. Well-paid jobs are scarce.
In 2018, 1.15 million people in the region were unemployed. While
this was less than a year ago, the decline in Bosnia and Herzegovina
and Kosovo was largely driven by higher inactivity and likely
emigration, which reduced the labour force’s participation rate. In
the words of the latest 2019 World Bank report on the Western Balkans: “If left unaddressed, human capital challenges will severely
limit the prospects for growth and poverty reduction.”
Not everyone leaves for purely economic reasons. Many are
reportedly leaving because of the “toxic” atmosphere and
overwhelming lack of perspective. “More Europe” in the Western
Balkans could possibly shift the gears. While disillusioned by
decades of empty promises from their local elites, the citizens of the
region still share a vision of the long-term prospect of EU
In all six countries, they are more likely to say membership would
benefit rather than harm their countries. At least four out of five
residents say EU membership would benefit their country or region.
For many of them, the EU accession process comes in different
shapes and forms. Citizens of the region associate membership with
improved living standards, job growth, better education, cleaner
streets, proper garbage collection and a more civilised and decent
political discourse. They associate it with better everyday lives.
So far, however, Europe’s efforts to translate its transformative
powers onto the ground and among people have not created a
momentous change — either in terms of processes or policy.
Moreover, citizens remain largely absent from the political
discourse in their countries. As for the EU, enlargement has not even
been on the agenda for years. The lack of appetite for enlargement
among the principal countries of the EU, to no one’s surprise, has led
an increasing number of people in the Western Balkans to believe
that their region will never become part of the EU. In response, they
choose to emigrate — to the EU.
Can the current messaging from Brussels provide some hope? In the
words of Ursula von der Leyen, now the first female President of the
European Commission: “The Western Balkans is very important for
the European Union. It’s Europe. And therefore I will support as
much as possible the growing relationship between the Western
Balkan countries and the European Union.” Von der Leyen formally
takes the helm of the EU’s executive on October 31 — the day
Britain is due to leave the bloc. How much Europe the new
Commission will bring to the Western Balkans region will almost
certainly determine the destinies of many who are thinking of
As the Western Balkans has witnessed many times, a lack of
convincing narratives presented by open, honest and committed
individuals results in failure, whereas competent, energetic and
committed personalities may bring about much-needed
breakthroughs. Thoughtful consideration of who will lead the
enlargement process is of extreme importance. The EU’s most
powerful tools have limits. From benchmarking and monitoring to
technical assistance and pre-accessional fund, success in the
Western Balkans will require profound modifications. Much is at
stake, and not only for the Western Balkans.
Unless there are significant improvements soon, the Western
Balkans region will almost certainly suffer severe demographic
challenges. Emigration en masse will cause major labour and expert
shortages. This will have immediate and long-term consequences.
But the greatest cost of all will be having to assist deserted countries — whose best and brightest have long gone.
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of ‘Europe’s Futures
Ideas for Action’ project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).