The leaders of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania agreed last Thursday to open their borders to one another, allowing free passage to their respective citizens, goods and capital as of January 1, 2023. They named their initiative “Open Balkans” or “Mini-Schengen” – after the European Union’s free travel zone – and expressed the hope of being joined some day by Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, which did not, however, respond to an invitation to participate in the process.
Such a regional partnership is obviously not a bad thing, though it seems unlikely given the historical differences dividing societies and stoking ethnic tensions.
The real issue, however, lies elsewhere. Is the “Open Balkan” initiative a priority for Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic, North Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev and Albania’s Edi Rama or is it a symbolic move being made by the three leaders to put political pressure on (blackmail) Brussels for their European Union accession? What did they mean by their statement that the Western Balkans “cannot wait for the EU to solve its internal problems so that their accession can go forward”? And if they feel they cannot wait any longer, do they have some other bosom in mind as they abandon the vision of a “European Balkans”?
What Rama, Vucic, Zaev and the others decide to do to make this “Mini-Schengen” happen is not of interest to the Europeans. What is, though, is whether they are implementing the reforms needed to join the European Union. The comments heard after the open border deal was signed about the EU’s “failure” to set a date for starting accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia “because of internal EU issues” is only half the truth. The other half is that these countries – partly as a result of the choices made by their leaders – are still not in a position to make a good fit with the other EU societies, even though the partners want them under the same roof, if mainly for geopolitical reasons.
So, instead of looking for alternatives, maybe these leaders should put their populist and personal ambitions aside and make a greater effort to fulfill the criteria that will get them through the EU door faster. And then they can look at having their people and goods circulate freely amongst themselves – because thanks to visas from Brussels, the people of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia already enjoy free travel in the EU. So what will it be? “Open” or “European” Balkans? The three leaders must decide. By keeping a foot in both boats, they are doing their people a disservice.