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The “mini-Schengen” in the Balkans: Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia

Despite the lack of promises on European Union (EU)  enlargement to the Western Balkans, three of these countries have taken an important initiative: creating a space to ensure the free movement of goods, persons, capital and services. The idea was to create a Balkan version of the European Union’s border-free Schengen area. Western Balkan leaders have met to discuss the creation of their own free transit area(1).This article firstly will explain the idea of the project and its aims; secondly, it will present the position taken by the countries interested on and those countries which may be affected by it. In conclusion, will be shown pros and cons of the mini Schengen in relation to the EU and the protagonist countries.

  1. The “mini-Schengen” idea. 

On October 11th, 2019, in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad, the declaration of intent to establish the free movement of people, goods, services and capital between the three countries has been signed by the Prime Ministers of Albania and North Macedonia, Edi Rama and Zoran Zaev, together with the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić. The project, promoted by Vučić, aims to improve regional cooperation between the countries and to arouse the interest of neighbours, laying the foundations for what could be a common space for the Balkan area in the future, which is not already part of the EU(2). The three leaders also affirmed that the initiative is open to the remaining members of the ‘Western Balkans Six’ (WB6), inviting Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo to join them as soon as possible and move forward to the project.(3)

On November 9th, 2019, the three leaders met again in Ohrid, northern Macedonia. At the meeting, in which the measures to be taken to make free movement effective at the centre of the project were discussed, the Bosnian Prime Minister Denis Zvizdić and the Minister of Economy of  Montenegro Dragica Sekulic took part. What came out by the meeting is that proposals should be implemented following the adoption of an action plan, while 2021 should be expected for full operation. Actually an agreement has been reached on the movement of persons, which will be allowed to cross the borders of the member countries with only an identity document, and on the procedures concerning work permits. 

2. What positions have the countries concerned taken?

Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, said that the “mini-Schengen” initiative had not been influenced by Brussels and that this Balkan region needs to accelerate the pace and the dynamic of growth. “Our aim is to be a part of the bigger European family, but while they are having their problems, we cannot be held hostage by the past or some disagreements… We are not the EU’s priority. We must make a priority, and not just between our three but between all six countries,” he said.(4)

Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić, said that the remaining three countries were also invited to the “mini-Schengen,” regardless of their differences on recognizing Kosovo’s independence. When asked if Kosovo had been invited to join, he said “The fact that we have differences relative to Kosovo, and that these two countries have recognized its independence, that has nothing to do with the flow of goods, people, services and capital”. Serbia wants to develop good relations and abolish administrative barriers in the Balkan region regardless the differences on recognizing Kosovo’s independence by the other member countries, nonetheless this has nothing to do with the free movement of people and goods(5). Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on February the 17th,  2008. To date, it is not recognized by Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as by 5 of the 28 EU member states and almost half of the United Nations (UN) members.(6) He also stated that by 2021, citizens of the three countries, Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia, would be able to move using their ID cards “at most” to cross the borders, so it will be possible to travel to the three countries without the requirement of a passport or visa at the border crossing; joint work permits will be issued and diplomas from other acceding countries recognised; customs controls at borders will be facilitated and speeded up, reducing the documentation to be presented (trucks now wait even more than ten hours); cross-border cooperation in the fight against organised crime and terrorism will be strengthened (7). The mini-Schengen agreement offers Serbia a relevant position in taking the lead in preparing itself (and also the region) for EU accession. So far, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is the only leader to offer an economic rationale (8) .

In his pitch to the Serbian people, Vucic argued that the initiative benefits Serbia the most due to the country’s larger and more competitive market. It also serves to reaffirm Serbia’s commitment to EU membership after recent flirtations with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union provoked a strong criticism from the EU (9). Trust must be earned. 

Serbian Prime Minister Zorana Mihajlović has said that the “mini-Schengen” is not a substitute for EU membership. We won’t face the creation of a new Yugoslavia and there won’t be nationalist projects implemented in the Balkans, but the mini-Schengen declaration is proof that Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia are an inalienable part of a united Europe. Despite these countries have still a lot of work to do to join the EU, starting from the “mini-Schengen” implementation could improve their relations and prepare them for the EU membership in the future.(10)

The European Movement in Serbia (EMinS) Secretary-General, Suzana Grubješić, welcomed the declaration because it laid the groundwork for implementing four European freedoms in one part of the Western Balkans. “It is important to support such initiatives because they help to create a freer and more stable Western Balkans, in a situation where the EU is dealing with its own problems and probably postponing the start of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia”, Grubješić said for EURACTIV Serbia (11). A criticism came from North Macedonian Chambers of Commerce President Daniela Arsovska, who said her country mostly needs structural reforms to join the EU, rather than a “mini-Schengen” with Serbia and Albania, which would lead to further isolation (12). Concentrating to the “mini-Schengen” project could also delay the preparation to join the EU membership. “At a time when we are conditionally about to join NATO and with the possibility of starting negotiations with the EU, it is a strange idea to enter into an economic ‘illegal structure’, the ‘mini-Schengen’ with Serbia, which has different positions than Macedonia in foreign policy, especially regarding accession to the Euro-Atlantic alliance,” Arsovska said (13).

North Macedonian Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, stated it was high time the countries in the region did something for their own interest, too. He also said that the EU is welcome to cooperate, but this initiative is focused on the interests of these countries in the region.(14) Not all countries indicated as potential candidates for the extension of the agreement have given a favourable opinion. As can be expected, a clear position is that of the Kosovo authorities. Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi refused to take part in the summit, saying it was « meaningless as long as Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina do not recognize Kosovo’s independence. » (15)

He also reiterated that the future of Kosovo is on the way to NATO and the EU. Kosovo has been left in a strange position during this mini Schengen plan. Its citizens already have the most stringent controls on movement as the last Western Balkan territory to still require visas to visit Schengen countries.(16) This is maybe due to face a strong emigration from Kosovo to EU countries that would occur in case of no-visas criteria. Furthermore, the agreement makes Kosovo’s punitive tariffs on Serbia look confrontational and retrograde.(17) The EU, and also the US, have heavily criticised the tariffs for undermining economic cooperation and torpedoing the negotiations with Serbia.(18) Relations between Kosovo and Serbia have been deadlocked for about a year, after Kosovo imposed duties on goods imported from Serbia by virtue of the obstruction carried out by Belgrade regarding the possible entry of Pristina into the Interpol Organisation. Specifically, Kosovo’s decision to impose 100% tariffs on goods imported from Serbia arrived on Wednesday, November 21, 2018, the day after the vote on Kosovo’s entry into the Interpol, held during the General Assembly of the organization in Dubai.(19) Kosovo needed 2/3 of the support for its entry, but only 68 countries had voted in its favour, 51 opposed and 16 abstained. Consequently , (now former) Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj expressed his deep disappointment and accused Serbia of having fought a fierce campaign against Pristina’s accession to Interpol.(20) On 17 October 2019, Ramush Haradinaj, withdrew his application for the admission of Pristina to Interpol.(21) Now, Kosovo appears uncooperative compared to neighbour countries. The others seem to be moving forward together towards EU membership, while Kosovo seems stuck in a more confrontational form of politics. This will put more pressure on Kosovo’s new government to drop the tariffs. But, as we can see the political moves of the new Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti (Vetëvendosje! movement) the 100% tariff on Serbian goods will be soon substituted with the criteria of reciprocity.(22) He is already working on it, and it seems a more rational decision. Relations based on reciprocity rather than on 100% tariff barriers is way better. 

Prime Minister Edi Rama said that there were no additional conditions for Kosovo’s involvement in the initiative, and stressed that he believes that “Kosovo does not need self-isolation”.(23) Seeing Albania as part of this project, moreover proposed by the Serbian president, created a sort of disappointment and a sense of betrayal on Kosovo’s population; this pushes even farer the possibility of acceptance of Kosovo to be part of it. When asked if there were any additional conditions for participation Kosovo and what he thinks of Hashim Thaçi’s comments on the “mini-Schengen, Rama said “If Kosovo needs respect, integration, economic development, this is the path. The initiative was inclusive, did not exclude anyone and that any conditionality would be considered unacceptable”.(24)

The European Commission recommended in May opening the talks with Albania and North Macedonia and a decision was expected at a European Council summit on 17-18 October 2019.(25)
But, as we know, France refused to say Yes to the opening of the talks for the accession of Albania and North Macedonia to the European Union.(26) All the Western Balkan countries are en route to the EU, albeit in different stages, with Montenegro and Serbia the only ones that have opened accession talks since 2014.(27) Regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations, along with the adoption of the EU acquis and economic growth are just few criteria for the opening of the talks about EU membership. Though observers including U.S. officials say inclusivity is the key to making it work, the plan as it stands offers few incentives for other states to join. The Special Correspondent of the White House for the negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia, Richard Grenell, expressed his support for the initiative of the countries of the Western Balkans on free movement. Specifically, according to the website of the American Embassy in Berlin, of which Grenell has been in charge since May 2018, the United States welcomes this initiative, which must be understood with a view to stimulating the free movement of goods, people, services and capital in the acceding countries of the Balkan region.(28) However, the White House Special Correspondent affirmed that all the states in the region, including Kosovo, which was opposed to this initiative, need to be included. 

For its part, the Trump Administration intends to support the region in creating economic opportunities and jobs for the new generations.(29) Kosovo’s refusal to attend underlines a fundamental challenge. Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia are a major hindrance not only for bilateral relations but for regional cooperation as well.

The “derecognition” campaign that Serbia has long waged against Europe’s newest country raises doubts about Belgrade’s commitment to be a constructive regional player and undermines the premise of an all-inclusive “mini Schengen”.(30) Without the inclusion of other countries the initiative will only offer a tripartite format for solving bilateral issues. At a follow-up meeting, held in the North Macedonia resort city of Ohrid in November 2019, leaders outlined proposals for introducing “four freedoms” across the three countries — namely, the freedom of movement of goods, services, people and capital.(31) But with the three leaders which met for a third time in Albania in late December 2019, some commentators baulk at the idea of applying the border-free principles of the EU to countries in the Balkans. Some of these concerns were highlighted by Montenegro’s Minister of Economy, Dragica Sekulic, who said after the Ohrid summit that her country was not interested in joining. She argued that most countries in the region already allow a certain amount of freedom of movement thanks to bilateral agreements.(32) She also noted that Western Balkan countries are part of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), which guarantees a degree of free flow of people and goods. 

3. Conclusion

The “mini Schengen” plan would remove the administrative barriers, already settled by CEFTA. Better customs procedures and passport-free travel, to some extent already in place on a bilateral basis, are not sufficient to justify all the hype. Serbia and Kosovo will ultimately need to resolve their conflictual relations. In the meantime, under the auspices of the “mini Schengen”, Serbia could commit to a more constructive role by ceasing its aggressive “derecognition” campaign and toning down its hostile rhetoric.(33) That would at least allow Kosovo to sit at the table. It would also serve as a show of good faith that could highlight the potential of the initiative to be truly transformative for the region.(34) But if Kosovo agrees to sit at the table under Serbian invitation, in somehow that would mean the recognition of Kosovo’s independence; would Vucic change his mind?! 

At the same time, for it to be sustainable and consequential, the “mini Schengen” needs to be institutionalised and move beyond the top-down, leader-centred approach seen so far.

While the involvement of EU partners is critical in this regard, the initiators need to show how the project can help the region move closer towards EU membership. From this agreement, it certainly loses the European Union. The creation of a free trade system parallel to and outside Schengen strengthens the Balkan economies, which will be able to boost their production chain. Reduced labour market costs and lower taxation risk creating an outflow of investment from the current EU into the Balkan axis. With a new contraction of industrial production in Brussels. In order to avoid interference from outside Europe (especially from Russia, but also from Turkey), the European Commission is now faced with the need to speed up the procedures for integrating Serbia and Montenegro into the Union.(35) At the same time, the possibility of the practices of Tirana and Skopje being reopened remotely becomes possible, despite the hard opposition being pursued by France. New meeting(s) to discuss about the opening of talks about Albania and North Macedonia are expected to happen in May 2020.  If an excessive hostile climate on the part of Brussels were picked up, however, by the present premiers, the hypothesis of support for the Euro-Asian giant is not a remote thing, also because of the possibilities of economic development. The agreement in these terms seems almost to be a blackmail against the European Union, endorsing the words of Albanian Prime Minister Rama about the importance that is thus acquired by the small Balkan countries.(36)

In any case, the objective pursued by Vučić, Rama and Zaev is to develop a joint growth strategy that can, through union and free interaction of economies that are not particularly prosperous, propose itself as a new scenario of cohesion in the fragmented Balkan reality, waiting to be finally considered worthy of the EU. 

1 Mario Rafaniello, Opinio Juris, 03/12/2019; Link: 

2 Julija Simic, Euractive, 11/10/2019; Link: 

3 Ibidem

4 Julija Simic, Euractive, 11/10/2019; Link: 

5 Ibidem

6 Ibidem

7 Cinzia Rizzi, Euronews, 10/11/2019; Link: 

8 Matthew Holroyd, Euronews, 11/11/2019; Link: 

9 Luke Bacigalupo, Global Risks Insights, 20/10/2019; Link: 

10 Julija Simic, Euractive, 11/10/2019; Link: 

11 Ibidem

12 Ibidem 

13 Ibidem

14 Ibidem

15 Ibidem

16 Luke Bacigalupo, Global Risks Insights, 20/10/2019; Link: 

17 Gazeta (journal) “TemA”, 03/11/2019; Link: 

18 Luke Bacigalupo, Global Risks Insights, 20/10/2019; Link: 

19 Jasmine Cermigna, LOUISS, International Security, 12/11/2019; Link: 

20 Ibidem

21 Ibidem

22 Luke Bacigalupo, Global Risks Insights, 20/10/2019; Link: 

23 European Western Balkans, Tanjug, 21/12/2019; Link: 

24 Ibidem

25 European Council Meeting, 17-18 October 2019; Link: 

26 (News) European Parliament, 24/10/2019; Link: 

27 André De Munter, Euro parliament portal, The Western Balkans, 12/2019; Link: 

28 U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Germany, 14/11/2019; Link: 

29 Ibidem

30 Akri Cipa, Reporting Democracy, 03/12/2019; Link: 

31 Ibidem

32 Ibidem

33 Ibidem

34 Ibidem

35 Andrea Massardo, Inside Over, 23/12/2019; Link: 

36 Ibidem 

Getoar Aliu

Léon De Tombeur

Diplômé en Histoire à la Sorbonne et en Relations Internationales à Lyon III, je me suis notamment intéressé à la politique internationale de l’Union européenne. Animé par un désir de contribuer à l’Europe afin de la rendre plus sociale et respectueuse de l’environnement, je me suis rendu à Bruxelles afin de travailler de concert avec les institutions européennes. Ma spécialisation tend davantage vers le domaine de la défense et de la sécurité, j’ai réalisé mon mémoire de fin d’études sur le futur de la défense anti-missile du continent européen. C’est pourquoi j’ai choisi le portefeuille de la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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