Meeting of the WB leaders in Ohrid 2019; Photo: Tanjug / Presidency of Serbia

BELGRADE – “Mini-Schengen initiative is a substitute for the lack of commitment of the EU“, the initiative is “slowing down the EU integration process”, “Mini-Schengen is creating new Yugoslavia” and some other statements were part of the headlines in previous weeks.

The critics of the initiative have warned that this would only distract the Western Balkan countries and shift the focus away from disappointment caused by the postponement of the opening of EU accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Some of them even went in depth by saying that it is “a cheap political trick that would only look good on paper.”

Other experts, however, believe that the Mini-Schengen initiative does not have any negative impact on the EU accession of the Western Balkans and that it goes hand in hand with the process.

“One of the conditions for the candidate and potential candidate countries to join the EU is establishing effective regional cooperation before joining. Mini-Schengen does precisely that,” says for the European Western Balkans Srđan Cvijić, Senior Policy Analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute and member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG).

The idea of creating this arrangement came in October, as Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama and Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev, together with President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić met in Novi Sad where they stated that others countries of the Western Balkans are welcome to join the initiative.

The second meeting of the leaders of Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia, together with the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina Denis Zvizdić and Minister of Economy of Montenegro Dragica Sekulić, was held in November in Ohrid, and resulted in a set of proposals with the goal of achieving “four freedoms”.

In addition to this, the leaders agreed that initiative should also include mutual recognition of professional qualifications, incentives for the exchange of students, joint research and development projects, border cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism and help in an emergency situation.

However, Cvijić explains that more needs to be done when it comes to resolving bilateral disputes between the countries in the region.

“You cannot at the same time build bridges and inflame the domestic public against the neighbours as some leaders in the region are doing, but Mini-Schengen is generally taking a step in the right direction that can be only beneficial to the citizens of the Balkans,” Cvijić states.

Similar opinion shares Professor of the University of Graz Florian Bieber, member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), pointing out that Mini-Schengen is a good initiative and it is “hard to see anything bad about it”.

“Freedom of movement should be a desirable goal, especially making it easier to reduce the importance of borders for citizens. However, it is not alternative to the EU accession or closer ties to the EU,” states Bieber for European Western Balkans, adding that most trade and economic links are not in the region, but with EU members, so Mini-Schengen cannot replace it.

Professor Bieber also reminds that this is not the first such initiative and that there have been talks about closer regional integration for the past twenty years.

Although the initial meetings were organised by Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia, with the presence of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, Kosovo was left out of the picture. Professor Bieber believes that for this agreement to have an impact, all countries of the region should be included.

“It will only be meaningful if it includes not just three, but all six countries of the Western Balkans. It is especially odd not to have Kosovo be a part of the initiative, as it is surrounded by the three signatories,” states Bieber.

This call was also emphasised by the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, who reiterated on several occasions that Kosovo should also be included.

Leaving the country out of the picture caused negative reactions in Pristina, primarily focusing on fear that the initiative will replace the EU integration process.

“Kosovo was deliberately overlooked by Serbia at the First Summit of this new regional initiative. Second, Kosovo’s only vision remains the EU and NATO membership. Therefore, we do not want in any circumstances to replace our Euro-Atlantic perspective with any regional initiative,” stated Hashim Thaçi on Facebook.

However, other countries of the region, namely North Macedonia and Albania, are faced with a similar fear. After the EU failed to deliver the long-awaited opening of accession negotiations, many believe that this initiative represents some sort of consolation for a broken promise.

Both Cvijić and Bieber point out that this is essentially “a homegrown initiative” rather than an EU process, therefore it could not represent a consolation of that kind.

“If they establish it and manage to keep it in place it would be a sign of maturity and the continuation of the positive spirit established at Prespa, and the regional cooperation is one of the conditions to join the EU,” says Cvijić.

In addition to this, Bieber explains that the initiative does not offer a roadmap for the rule of law and other reforms.

“While there are certainly some economic benefits, they are incomparable to EU accession. Thus, Mini-Schengen should be seen as a positive move towards regional cooperation and integration, nothing more and nothing less. If it works, it will help the countries and citizens and make a more credible case for EU accession. It does not offer a meaningful replacement for EU accession and this needs to be clear in the region and the EU member states,” concludes Bieber.

As the initiative received praise from various sides, the following and more concrete steps are announced for the period before the meeting in Albania in December.