Diplomats are still wondering what’s behind the initiative of Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia, who last October decided to advance regional cooperation by forming a so-called “mini-Schengen” in the Western Balkans.
At first sight, the initiative is good: it aims to lift travel restrictions along the EU model and introduce a common working permit. Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, all EU hopefuls, are also welcome to join in on the action.
But if the initiative is good, why is it criticised in the region itself?
Kosovo, still fighting for international recognition, is in particular furious, because it sees it as treason by its big sister-country Albania, cosying up to arch-enemy Serbia. In Albania itself, the opposition harshly criticises the idea, which raises doubts about its viability.
For its part, Montenegro stated it is not interested in joining because, among other reasons, it sees no added value. Western Balkan countries are part of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), which guarantees a degree of free flow of people and goods.
EU member and Balkan neighbour Bulgaria doesn’t like the initiative either, because it smells an attempt to resuscitate some form of Yugoslavia or of Greater Serbia, which consistently seeks to put Skopje under its thumb.
An MEP from Bulgaria’s ruling GERB party stressed that this was an initiative by Serbia and pointed out that Belgrade has recently signed a free-trade deal with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
North Macedonia is holding early parliamentary elections on 12 April. The nationalist opposition VMRO-DPMNE of former PM Nikola Gruevski is strongly pro-Serbian, and Mini Schengen is music to their ears.
What is clear is that Mini Schengen benefits Serbia. The landlocked country of less than 7 million people (Yugoslavia was 23 million) utterly needs to project itself in a bigger framework. Mini Schengen has the potential to incorporate 12 million.
Albania was never part of Yugoslavia, so even better: it provides access to the Adriatic in lieu of Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia joining. And a bonus: it really humiliates Kosovo.
The bottom line is that EU accession is not for tomorrow and, in the absence of clear membership chances, its neighbourhood will be shaped by external but also internal players. On balance, many will say, Greater Serbia is probably better than Greater Albania.
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Look out for…
General Affairs Council on Future of Europe conference.
Public conference on implementing the European Green Deal/European Climate Law, with VP Timmermans.
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Sam Morgan]