Civil Society High-Level Conference Opening session - Youth Policy in the Western Balkans

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Ladies and gentlemen, first of all, let me welcome the distinguished guests of this important Conference, Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi who is joining us by a video message from Brussels, as well as Deputy Minister Jaroslav Miller, Deputy Minister Martin Dvořák and Deputy Secretary General Tanja Miščević, who are physically here with us today.

I would like to stress that today's conference of the European Economic and Social Committee is organised with much appreciated support from the European Commission, the Regional Cooperation Council and under the auspices of the Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Let me also warmly welcome all of you participants present here with us in the beautiful city of Prague coming from the employers' associations, trade unions and civil society organisations of the Western Balkans, the Czech Republic, as well as from the rest of the European Union and wider Europe. I equally welcome those who are following us online via web streaming.

Today we are here to discuss Youth Policy in the Western Balkans, as an essential element for the future of the region and Europe. We will look at the issue of youth policy from all possible angles, analysing processes in the European Union and the Western Balkans, but the underlining motto of all these topics is the need to involve young people, as well as social partners and other civil society organisations, in the making and the implementation of these policies.

It is currently impossible to hold any debate without touching upon the terrible war in Ukraine. Our Committee has condemned in the strongest possible terms the Russian aggression against independent and democratic Ukraine since the very first day of the invasion. The Committee keeps regular contacts with Ukrainian civil society via the well-established EU-Ukraine civil society platform. The war has not suspended our common activities, quite the contrary. We were very pleased to welcome some of Ukrainian colleagues in our Committee at the end of April, and again in Krakow in July, and listen to their concerns. In the framework of this conference, our thoughts also go to the young people in Ukraine, whose hopes and aspirations were shattered by this terrible war. 

Dear participants, young people in the European Union and the Western Balkans are facing many difficulties and challenges, amplified today by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Many of these difficulties are of a similar nature, while some are more specific to your region - such as the desire for better opportunities that motivates many of you to leave your countries and to search for future elsewhere, often within the European Union. In 2021, the rate of youth unemployment in the European Union was at 14%, and it was as high as 30% in some Member States. Young people have difficulties to become financially independent, as many times they face discrimination in terms of pay in view of their age. Young people were particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused an increased number of mental health issues as they were faced with the temporary closure of educational institutions and social, cultural and sport activities. Many young people are still struggling to find their place in our society and to restore eroded social connections. A holistic and integrated approach to supporting young people facing multiple barriers to educational, social and labour market inclusion is needed, both in the European Union and in the Western Balkans.

The Youth Guarantee, which aims to ensure that all young people receive a good quality offer of employment, continued education, an apprenticeship or a traineeship, and which has also recently been reinforced, has a major transformative potential in helping in the fight against youth unemployment.  The Youth Guarantee can also be an inspiration for the Western Balkans and its implementation could help in tackling the "brain drain" that countries in the region are currently facing.

Dear participants, Mahatma Gandhi said: "The future depends on what we do in the present". You, young people who represent the future of Europe, should act today to build your future by participating in elections and being engaged in civic and political activities. Whilst recent surveys show that 85% of youth are interested in and discuss politics when they get together with friends and relatives, a majority feel that they don't have much or any say in the decisions, laws and policies put in place in their countries. I know that many of you who are here with us today are working hard to change this. I am convinced that more support, including financial support, is needed to promote ways of societal engagement, including volunteering and participation in civil society organisations, but also within trade unions and in entrepreneurship. Our Committee is strongly advocating for the increase of this support.

In this view, we welcomed the proposal to designate 2022 as the European Year of Youth and to set this in the context of the European Pillar of Social Rights and the post-pandemic recovery. It is important however that youth initiatives are not limited to one-off events, such as this important conference we are attending today, but rather lead to long-term systematic developments.

As many of you present here will agree, functioning social dialogue and enabling civic space are of great importance when assessing a country's readiness to join the European Union. Considering the current geopolitical situation in Europe, we are concerned that democracy is under threat in many of our countries. Therefore, we all need to join forces and fight to preserve and promote common European values such as the respect for the rule of law, fundamental rights and media freedom. We need to send a clear message to our governments and all other stakeholders that our goal is to build a better future for the Western Balkans and to amplify the voice of young people from the region. We will do that by producing strong conclusions of this conference.

Dear friends, to conclude, I am here today to express once again my support to the enlargement of the European Union as I did exactly a year ago during our 8th Western Balkans Civil Society Forum. As I stressed in Skopje, any discussion about the European Union’s enlargement is implicitly a discussion on the future of Europe and vice versa. Our Union continues to be the best gift that we can leave to our youth, the best place in the world in which to live, to start a family, to do business, to be looked after, to be protected, and to live together in rich diversity.

Our Committee believes that the Western Balkans should be an integral part of our European Union, as this is in the interest not just of the countries and citizens of the Western Balkans, but also of all of us in this Union. Organised civil society from the region and from the European Union should and must have a prominent role in promoting and facilitating this process and I can assure you that our Committee will continue to do its part.

I wish you a great success in the discussions and I thank you for your attention!

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2022.09.16 Civil Society High-Level Conference Opening session - Youth Policy in the Western Balkans