bne IntelliNews – Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia launch borderless travel zone by 2023
The leaders of Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia agreed in Skopje on July 29 to establish a common borderless traffic zone by 2023, after the EU slowed down the process of integration with the Western Balkans.
The idea is part of the “mini-Schengen” initiative, a project to improve economic and regional cooperation between the three Balkan countries, which was renamed “Open Balkan” at the Skopje Economic Forum.
“Instead of walls, today we have built new bridges. An open Balkan is moving forward. We will expand cooperation in areas important to our citizens and our societies,” said Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama also participated in the forum which was held at the Alexander Palace Hotel in Skopje.
The event also brought together representatives of more than 300 companies from North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania and other countries in the region, as well as representatives of international institutions.
“We are more determined than ever to uphold the four freedoms of the EU: the free movement of goods, services, people and capital,” said the Prime Minister of North Macedonia.
An integrated market to boost GDP
Zaev expects the integrated regional market to drive further GDP growth in the region.
“It makes the Western Balkans more attractive, more competitive and closer to EU markets,” Zaev said.
Disappointed by the slow pace of EU enlargement, the three leaders decided to take their own initiatives to improve economic and regional cooperation
“The total opening of the borders between the three countries is a historic idea. The goal is for our citizens to live better, ”Vucic said at the forum.
“From Belgrade or Novi Sad, we can go to Skopje and Ohrid, Tirana and Durres without any delay. If we manage to do this in a year and a half, I don’t know if you understand, but that’s ancient history, ”Vucic said.
He invited Zaev and Rama to another meeting in Belgrade under the joint cooperation initiative in October or November, which will be followed by a similar event in Albania.
“For Albania, this is a strategic initiative and we will continue it,” Rama said in Skopje. He added that the free movement of goods and services can be achieved with an integrative VAT payment system.
The participating countries also signed three documents referring to a faster flow of goods and services, the establishment of a single labor market and joint action in the event of natural disasters.
After arriving in Skopje on July 28, Vucic and Rama, accompanied by Zaev and the mayor of Skopje, Petre Silegov, drove through downtown Skopje. People stopped them in the square and some wanted to take selfies with the leaders, while others just greeted them.
Enemies in the past
Rama called on other countries in the region, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, to join the initiative, saying he does not understand their motives for rejecting the idea.
Since the three countries launched mini-Schengen in 2019, some critics have said that the initiative is more like a mini-Yugoslavia or an idea of restoring the former Yugoslavia to some extent, in which Serbia , as a larger country, will dominate the newly formed initiative.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti in particular has been reluctant to join. On July 29, he called the free economic zone initiative of Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia “without a vision”, and called on the region to conclude a trade deal with the EU at the same time. place, reported Exit.al.
Kosovo is a former Serbian province, which unilaterally declared independence in 2008, but it is still not recognized by Belgrade as a separate country.
On the other hand, there has been a warming of relations between Tirana and Belgrade in recent years.
Vucic told the forum about his first meeting with Rama when they saw each other as enemies only to gain political points, adding that things have changed a lot since then.
“I remember the first meeting with Edi in 2015. Two enemies, finding enough excuses to be offended. But today we no longer want to know more, but only about the common future, ”Vucic said by Alban Daily News.
“Today, the Serbs have fallen better and more safely in Albania. The same goes for Albanians and Macedonians in Serbia. These are the messages we want to get across. The economic and social landscape will change, ”said Vucic.
Rama recalled that they were ready to go to war for a football game, but things are different now.
Rama stressed that he still does not agree with Vucic on the Kosovo issue, but this cannot be an obstacle to cooperation in the economy.
Days earlier, Vucic had said in an interview with the Financial Times that there was enlargement fatigue in the EU.
“We have to see what we can do for ourselves [instead], what we can do for our employees, how we can expand our markets, ”Vucic said in the interview.
The EU enlargement process stalled when Bulgaria vetoed the launch of EU membership negotiations with Skopje due to historical and linguistic issues at the end of 2020, which also stalled the progress of Albania’s accession to the EU. The two countries have been coupled in the process and are not likely to be decoupled.
Serbia, which has already started negotiations with the EU, needs to make progress in the normalization dialogue with Kosovo in order to make progress in its EU accession process.