The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, and Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, have signed an online deal to allow freedom of movement between the 2 countries.
The deal will allow citizens of both countries to cross borders using only their national ID cards, eliminating the need to present a valid passport at the relevant border control points. in what Rama has described as ‘a very positive step’.
North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev was also present during the signing of the deal, bringing the long-mooted mini Schengen zone in the Western Balkans a step closer to being a reality.
Mini Schengen Zone to Include Albania, Serbia, and North Macedonia
The leaders of Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia first signed a ‘mini-Schengen’ deal, modeled on the passport-free agreement signed by the 26 ETIAS counrties in the European Schengen Area, in October 2019.
The deal was inked with the intention of enabling the free movement of people, goods, capital, and revenue between the 3 countries, with the aim of having all 6 countries in the Western Balkans, including Croatia, eventually, join in with the initiative.
The initiative resembles the Regional Economic Area (REA) proposal initiated between the Balkan states at the 2017 Trieste Summit under the Berlin Process, put into motion by the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC).
However, while Kosovo has already indicated its interest in becoming part of the ‘mini-Schengen’ deal, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina have yet to make a definitive decision on the matter.
However, the RCC has stated that “ we keep our eyes and ears open to every single proposal of every economy in the region and will continue to do so” and that “Regional cooperation becomes meaningful once the final end is EU integration”.
Deal Signals New Age in Relations between Serbia and Albania
The signing of the free movement deal signals a significant step in friendlier political relations between Albania and Serbia, which had been strained since the beginning of the Kosovo war of independence from Serbia in the late 1990s.
Relations had already started to warm following a gradual increase in tourist travel from Serbia to Albania’s extensive Mediterranean coast, which boomed after the tourism ministries of both counties signed a deal facilitating travel between the nations in 2018.
The popularity of Albania as a tourist hotspot for Serbian tourists only increased in 2020, as it was one of the few holiday destinations which did not impose coronavirus travel restrictions on visitors from Serbia, which has recorded a high number of cases.
A representative from the Serbian National Association of Travel Agencies (YUTA) has said that roughly 5 times the number of Albanian tourists have decided to visit Serbia in 2020 compared to previous years, with the total figures expected to be in the range of 5,000 to 6,000 tourist arrivals.
Additionally, While signing the new ‘mini-Schengen’ deal, the leaders of the 3 Balkan countries involved also agreed to sign a Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation in the Fight against Covid-19, which promotes the sharing of information about COVID-19 and the abolition of PCR tests for travellers between these nations.
Zaev stated that the agreement will also allow for the treatment of patients of any of the counties in another if they test positive for COVID-19, with the costs involved shared between the 2 nations involved.
How the Mini Schengen Zone Will Change the Western Balkans
The Balkans mini Schengen Area is designed to provide greater opportunities for trade, student exchanges, and economic growth between the member states who sign the deal.
A common regional market is also expected to overcome hurdles for the countries to join the EU common market, such as corruption and failing infrastructure and corruption.
The deal is expected to develop the countries involved in 4 areas and create a:
- Regional trade zone (the foundation of the European market)
- Regional digital zone for integration in the EU digital market
- Regional investment zone that will encourage foreign investors and aid in adjusting investment policies to EU standards
- Regional industrial and innovation zone to develop key sectors of industry.
Oliver Varhelyi, the EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement matters, stated his belief that the new deal will “make the region more attractive and competitive” and “will help to transform it into an investment hub interesting to global investors who would like to trim off the distance between them and the EU markets.”
Nevertheless, the countries still have some significant changes to make before the regional market can become fully operational. These include the reduction of bank charges, the lifting of technical trade barriers, the encouragement of e-commerce, and the coordination of investment policy between member states.