[Interview] Hani: If not listened, our Youth will “vote” by feet

TIRANA – RYCO Secretary General Mr Albert Hani gave an interview for the Tirana-based newspapers, the Albanian Daily News, in which he speaks about recently-organized Regional Ministerial Meeting on Youth and Education, key achievements in 2021, the Berlin Process, and the potential of the Western Balkan youth to lead the change in the region. The full original interview is available below.


Albanian Daily News: Mr. Secretary General it is a great pleasure to have this conversation as 2021 is ending and particularly after an important event – the regional ministerial meeting on youth and education held in Tirana on the 8th of December 2021. First of all, please, which was the agenda of the meeting and which were some of its main results in the short and medium term?

Albert Hani: Firstly, let me thank you for this opportunity to sum up the year behind us and speak for the Albanian Daily News.

When it comes to the Regional Ministerial Meeting on Youth and Education, seven years after the Berlin Process begun, with Tirana being the European Youth Capital 2022 and Novi Sad being the European Capital of Culture 2022, high-level policy makers in the areas of youth and education gathered in Tirana on 8 December 2021, the Youth Day of Albania, to discuss a common goal: How to keep youth in focus and strengthen youth cooperation amongst the Western Balkans.

Speaking about the main results, I would like to underline that considering that youth should be mainstreamed in the policies of the governments of the region, and the role which the ministries of education and youth should play, this meeting served as a first step to bring the most important governmental representatives of the region to discuss regional youth policy and share common practices. The regional meeting also reconfirmed the importance of reconciliation and regional youth cooperation in the Western Balkans.

The results of the meeting are summarized in the Chair’s Conclusions, but what I am most inspired with is the fact that the ministers reaffirmed the key role of regional initiatives as drivers of regional cooperation in the Western Balkans within the wider context of the EU integration process. They also underlined the understanding that only through joint actions we can progress as the region by respecting the values of peace, trust based on mutual understanding, respect for human rights, diversity, dignity, solidarity, cooperation, tolerance and respect.

ADN: Mr. Hani, you have declared that only through joint actions will the Western Balkans progress. In this frame, which are some of the youth joint actions, and secondly, where do you see commonalities between the youth of the regional countries?  

AH: We at RYCO believe that the region shares many similarities and has a clear interest in cooperating and creating stable societies that build trust amongst peoples. Our young people are central in building sustainable peaceful societies in the Western Balkans and they share many commonalities while their hopes and values across the region are closely aligned. This is not only a belief but the truth that we have found by conducting regional researches, e.g. the Shared Futures study.

Young people’s attitudes are aligned in multiple fields. Let me give you a couple of examples – all of them want a better future for their societies, they are ready to get involved into decision-making processes, they see their future in the EU, they are all optimistic about the peace and regional cooperation, etc. But on the other side, our youth are ready to leave the region if our governments are not supporting them in fulfilling their dreams of having better conditions at home. That’s why we always call the governments to listen to young people and their needs because if they do not do so, our young people will vote by feet, leaving the region. For us, the fact that an average of 52 percent of youth say that they envisage themselves living outside of the region in 10 years is alarming. All the important stakeholders in the region – governments, regional organizations, civil society, media, and education institutions – should immediately react upon this fact and find joint solutions and actions to tackle it.

These joint actions may be implemented in various areas – youth participation, social, civic, education, and culture and sport sectors. RYCO offers perfect examples of how we can merge these areas and work toward a common goal – creating better livelihoods for the Western Balkan young people. Our activities give the proof that different region is possible.

ADN: The Regional Youth Cooperation Office is an initiative of the Berlin Process and its role has been evaluated very much. Which is the key to success and could you please unveil a balance sheet of the achievements in 2021?     

AH: We believe that the key to success, not only for RYCO but for the whole Western Balkans, is trust, respect and cooperation. And when I say this, I literally mean it. We need trust, respect and cooperation between the public institutions, regional initiatives, civil society, media, etc. Only by deeply respecting each other and focusing on commonalities rather than on the things that divide us, we can achieve new heights.

On the other hand, when it comes to the youth policies, we always repeat that youth policies cannot be created without young people. They need to be consulted and offered an equal space at the table when we are developing policies directed towards young people.

Speaking about the achievements during 2021, I would like to underline a couple of them. The first one is that RYCO celebrated its fifth birthday by which we gave a proof that we need cooperation in the region even in the times when the political situation may be not the best one. Secondly, RYCO witnessed the change of the leadership and during this process showed it maturity. Thirdly, we launched a new school exchange scheme – Superschools – together with our partners from GIZ and with the financial support of the EU and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. This initiative will be running for three years, aiming to exchange thousands of youth from across the region. Fourthly, we organized the first regional ministerial meeting we were talking about in your first question. Fifthly, we continued working on bringing the youth of the region closer together through a number of small- and medium-scale activities through volunteering, social entrepreneurship, media, etc. Sixthly, we started developing our new Strategic Plan for the next three years. And finally, took part in high-level initiatives and meetings, such as the Berlin Process, where we were advocating for young people’s interests.

ADN: As we touched upon the Berlin Process it is well known that its architect was the former Chancellor, Angela Merkel. For a long time the question has been around: what will happen with this project after the ‘Merkel era’? Your opinion on this would be very valuable.   

AH: RYCO is a dream of youth and as long as there are governments around supporting their future, there will be hopes for youth. The era you are mentioning is not set for the purpose to finish, it is an obligation of all of us to try to give our best in paving the road towards cooperation and understanding with neighbors and towards the European integration.

We were lucky to have Angela Merkel in a position to push and support the fulfillment of the dream of the Western Balkans to live in peace. RYCO and youth here are showing to the leaders in the region that this type of political cooperation in larger scale is possible, that it leads to new dreams as well as initiatives, and they should not hesitate to take the responsibility for continuation of the spirit of the Berlin Process, with help of the European Union.

ADN: Speaking in concrete terms, Mr. Secretary General, how much can youth play their role regarding reconciliation and youth cooperation in the Western Balkans?  

AH: Young people are the central actors of change, not only in the processes of reconciliation and youth cooperation but in all aspects of our lives. What we need to do is to scale up the activities directed towards young people and give them more space. This shouldn’t be done by RYCO only but also by the governments, education institutions, media, civil society… Only if we allow young people to flourish in the right way, we will see the fruits of their enormous potential.

But on this way of empowering our young people to be a change, we also have obstacles. When it comes to the obstacles, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel to tell you what they are. They are already identified by the young people. Our already-mentioned study shows that young people do not trust their institutions, they want more space for participation, they want to see the poor and marginalized being helped out, they want freedom from fear and violence, they want societies without hate speech, they want inclusive social policies and the protection of marginalized and disadvantaged groups of people.

So, the only thing to do is to listen to the youth and their voices. If we do not listen carefully and do not take immediate actions for resolving the issues they are concerned about, we will see the rise of authoritarianism, nationalism, enhancement of brain drain.

A different Western Balkans is possible, a region in which young people stay, prosper and create a better future. It is up to us – institutions, governments, schools, civil society, media – to deliver upon this together with young people. So, let’s work together on this dream of theirs, a dream of a reality which is good for each member of our societies.

ADN: 2022 will be a special year for two countries: Albania and Serbia because Tirana will be the European Youth Capital 2022 and Novi Sad the European Capital of Culture 2022. Which is the significance of these two projects? 

AH: 2022 is also the European Year of Youth besides Tirana being the European Youth Capital and Novi Sad being the European Capital of Culture. At the same time, this overlaps with the Chairmanship of Serbia of the RYCO Governing Board.

This is a great political year for all the youth in the Western Balkans and the EU, full of opportunities for cooperation and opportunities for our political leaders to show their readiness to reflect the need of the youth, to get rid of elements that block their prosperity such are: nationalism, ethnocentrism, etc. Next year, with help of youth, is going to be the year that will determine how leaders in the region will be acting and what they will be doing on the road towards the EU.

Finally, I wish both Novi Sad and Tirana lots of successes in working together, especially having in mind that Novi Sad used to be the European Youth Capital in 2019. So it would be natural to scale up the cooperation between the two cities in this regard.

ADN: Considering that besides achievements in the region there are problems and RYCO makes a contribution to overcome those. But one of the most worrisome problems is that the drive of youth immigration goes on in some regional countries. For example, Albania has the highest rate. First, Mr. Secretary, which are the roots of this phenomenon and secondly, does the restriction of immigration constitute part of your work?

AH: As I already pointed out, the fact that an average of 52 percent of youth from across the region say that they envisage themselves living outside of the region in 10 years is alarming. The roots of such a problem are diverse… Previous studies have found that the motivation for youth migration is overwhelmingly economic. On the other hand, the analysis of the data collected for our Shared Futures study showed that in most of the region, those who expected to leave tended to express less confidence in governing institutions than did their peers who planned to stay. There was also a clear, positive correlation between concern with social injustice and corruption and the intent to migrate.

What RYCO is doing in this regard is that we are trying to bring different stakeholders together and present them with the findings that we have. Unfortunately, we do not have power over most of the issues that young people are identifying as the reasons for leaving. That is why RYCO is listening to young people, to their voices and needs, and by using our unique position in the region, we are advocating for change. We hope that we are heard by our governments in this regard.

ADN: In conclusion, Mr. Hani, how important is in your view the faster integration of the regional countries in the EU for a better future of the youth and what are your expectations for the start of the intergovernmental talks between the EU and Albania and North Macedonia? 

AH: The faster we integrate to the EU, the faster are the chances for the whole region to catch up with the EU standards. But let’s not deceive ourselves and think that by becoming a part of the EU we will resolve all our problems. We need to use the EU accession process as an incentive for ourselves to resolve faster our own problems. Having said that, I believe that the EU membership will be beneficial for the whole region, not only the young people but the key of change still lies in our own hands.

The start of the negotiation processes of Albania and North Macedonia should be seen as very urgent matter for the Western Balkans and for the EU. This hard phase is also to be seen as a great unifying opportunity for the governments of the region to show their readiness to support each other when in need. Voicing unanimously the concern of one member of the group will bring this region closer together.

Let me conclude this interview by saying that it is up to us to create a better reality. Let’s not wait for someone else to bring it to us. We need to work on our own if we want to see the change. A different Western Balkans is possible, a region in which young people stay, prosper and create a better future. It is up to all of us – institutions, governments, schools, civil society, and media – to deliver upon this together with young people. So, let’s work together on this dream of theirs, a dream of a reality which is good for each member of our societies.

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