“Travel to Europe 2011,” a Balkan Trust for Democracy project jointly organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Robert Bosch Stiftung, has allowed 145 students from the Western Balkans to travel around Europe in order to increase their understanding of the European Union. This summer, students from six Western Balkan nations began their travels in Berlin before embarking on a month of independent travel.

Travel to Europe began in 2005 as an initiative of the European Movement in Serbia, and was originally only open to Serbian students. It was expanded at regional level in 2007 with the involvement of GMF and Robert Bosch Stiftung, opening the program to students from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro. In the last two decades, political and economic challenges have prevented the majority of Western Balkan youth from travelling abroad, and the isolation resulted in a certain lack of comprehension of the rest of Europe. Travel to Europe was founded to allow high-achieving students to experience firsthand the political, social, and economic realities of modern Europe. The project also encourages students to judge for themselves the arguments put forward for and against their country’s future membership in the European Union.

Filip Vojvodic Medic, a program officer in GMF’s Belgrade office, says that priority is given to students who have either never travelled outside of their region or who would not ordinarily have the finances necessary to do so. “After attending an official opening and discussion in Berlin, the students are given rail cards and spending money to travel independently,” he said.

This year, students travelled to Berlin for a talk with Gerald Knaus, founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative. His focus was on the changing nature of Europe and the European “border revolution,” with specific emphasis on what the removal of borders means for the Western Balkans.  Paul-Georg Friedrich, a program officer with Robert Bosch Stiftung, said the students were engaged and the discussion was lively. “One student voiced her frustration with the negative perception of Western Balkan nations around Europe,” Friedrich said. “This was a great opportunity for them to debate on the topic.”

Medic added that, year after year, the “historical baggage” of the 1990s is becoming less and less a factor to the students. “This year, the average date of birth of participants was 1989,” he said. “The breakup of Yugoslavia is still significant in their lives, but each year we can see the weight subsiding.”

Friedrich said he believes this project is of particular value as it facilitates the spread of information and knowledge. “Students who otherwise would not have the opportunity to get to know Europe can see it for themselves and take what they’ve learned home,” he said. “It is important that we communicate to the younger generations, the ones who will talk to their friends and their families about what they’ve seen.”

The project is supported at local levels by six regional partners -- Mjaft! of Albania Youth Information Agency Bosnia and Herzegovina, Youth Initiatives for Human Rights Kosovo, Citizens Association MOST, Green Home, and European Movement in Serbia.