As EU membership stalls, Balkan countries make controversial move to create their own mini-Schengen

Seeing the leaders of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia share a moment of collective jubilation is not something that happens every day, especially in a region known for its past strife and differences.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev were all smiles as they strolled through the Macedonian capital of Skopje in late July after signing a trilateral economic agreement at a regional trade forum .

Called the Open Balkan Initiative, the idea of ​​forming a common market for countries awaiting EU membership was previously known as the Mini-Schengen Area.

The initiative is trade-heavy, and it promises the free movement of goods and citizens and equal access to labor markets. Participating countries would save up to $ 3.2 billion (€ 2.71 billion) each year, according to World Bank estimates.

A previous attempt was made during the Berlin Process, a German-led cooperation initiative designed for the countries of the Western Balkans, which never resulted in a binding agreement.

The Berlin process launched in 2014 aimed to quell growing Euroscepticism in the region after then-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced a five-year moratorium on the admission of new members by the syndicate.

Seven years later, countries in the region are trying to prove that they can do things on their own, with or without EU help.

Belgrade to Tirana without any control?

Albanian Prime Minister Rama told Skopje that the move was aimed at preventing the Western Balkans from getting stuck in “a little caricature of the EU, where everything requires consensus and anyone can block it with a veto.”

Rama, who has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of the EU’s approach to membership, was supported by Prime Minister Zaev. Although EU membership remains a goal for all three, “until the EU decides, we must find ways to continue the process of Europeanization,” Zaev said.

Albanian and Macedonian leaders criticized Bulgaria’s veto on the two membership negotiations which officially open due to the ongoing language debate between the two, with Bulgaria claiming to have problems with the appeal of the language spoken in North Macedonian.

Serbian Prime Minister Vučić was also positive, saying that “it is time to take matters into our own hands and decide for ourselves our destiny and future” and bragged that “from the 1st January 2023, no one will stop you from Belgrade to Tirana. “

But moving forward without the participation of the six Western Balkan countries could backfire and create further divisions in the region.

Tensions in Kosovo

The biggest elephant in the room is Kosovo, which Serbia does not recognize as an independent state and claims that its former province – located geographically in the middle between Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania – is actually part of his territory.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 after NATO intervention in 1999 led to the withdrawal of Belgrade-controlled forces from the predominantly ethnic Albanian province. Since then, Serbia has actively tried to prevent Kosovo from becoming a full member of international organizations, such as the United Nations, and has significantly compromised its process of integration into the EU. Serbia has also waged an international campaign of de-recognition, in an attempt to deny it its status.

When Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s, the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milošević took an active part in creating and sustaining wars and conflicts which caused significant loss of life in the region, in particular during the war in Bosnia and the conflict in Kosovo.

Today Vučić, who was Milošević’s Minister of Information in the 1990s, leads the initiative, much to the apprehension of the leaders of the three abstaining countries. Kosovo’s leaders, including Prime Minister Albin Kurti, have criticized the initiative. In August, Kurti declared that Open Balkan is “a balkan open to autocracy, corruption and war criminals”.

This illustrates the lingering tensions between Kurti and Vučić, but also Rama. According to Gjergi Vurmo of the Institute for Democracy and Mediation in Tirana, the clash between Kurti and Rama has degraded the traditionally good relations between the two countries – both ethnic Albanian majority – have maintained.

“Last year’s report from the European Commission for Albania had a very interesting difference,” emphasizes Vurmo, “all other EU reports on Albania on regional cooperation and relations with neighbors have noted excellent relations between Albania and Kosovo “.

Last year’s report stated that Albania’s relations with Kosovo are now “good”, as are with Serbia and North Macedonia, for example.

“So we have some sort of official confirmation that relations are not the best. And I think the fault lies on both sides. Maybe it was Albania and more precisely the mega-ego and the “Rama intends to play the regional role. A leader who takes care of Kosovo. But there is some blame to be placed on some politicians on the Kosovo side,” Vurmo explains.

Kurti’s party in Kosovo, Vetevendosje or VV, is trying to become a more established political subject in Albania and even competed with candidates in the April elections. It appears that Kurti is trying to expand his political influence across the border, and disagreements over the initiative are a way to gain support from those who disagree with Rama.

But this struggle between Kurti and Rama distracts attention from more important issues, such as what it means for the rule of law and the general state of democracy in the region, Vurmo said.

“For me personally, what matters most is a) is it inclusive? It is not. It cannot be called Open Balkan with only three countries as members. And b), that Does this mean for democracy? It means absolutely nothing, “he said. Explain.

“It doesn’t mean anything because it’s a tactical project that makes sense for Vučić and Rama, and it doesn’t make sense with what the citizens want.”

“Because at the end of the day, what is the main reason why foreign direct investment does not come to the Balkans? Because they don’t trust the justice system.

“Our businessmen in Albania, do you think they would trust the judicial system in Serbia? Or, say, in Bosnia, if they ended up joining mini-Schengen? No,” Vurmo concludes.

Is Vucic trying to fill the EU vacuum?

Toby Vogel, analyst at the Council for Democratization Policy, a Berlin-based think tank, believes that for Rama and Vučić, the Open Balkan initiative is indeed a publicity stunt aimed at showing their personal power and contrasting it with the The impotence of the EU in the region.

“Vučić is trying to diversify,” says Vogel. “He has been trying for some time to really strengthen relations in the region – not to be seen as the champion of [solely] the Serbs. “

“Vučić’s ambition is greater. He sees himself as the regional leader and of course being the leader of all Serbs is helpful in all of this, but as soon as it conflicts with his regional ambition I think he will opt for the regional role, “he said. Explain.

This marks a significant change in strategy for Vučić over the years, who began his political career as a zealous ultra-nationalist in the Serbian Radical Party, then moderated some of his views – including on joining the Serbian Radical Party. ‘EU – when he formed the Serbian Progressive Party. In recent years Vučić has generally played a pro-EU card in Brussels while retaining nationalist views in the region. By his own admission, he claims to have grown politically over the years.

“This is what we saw in the history of the vaccine, where it was very clear that the message was ‘we can do things where the EU has failed'”, illustrates Vogel. “We show our solidarity with our brethren in North Macedonia, Bosnia, etc. by giving them vaccines or letting them come to be vaccinated and all that.”

But when too few Balkan countries participate, pitting one side against the other could create significant divisions.

Problems that still plague the Western Balkans, such as the endemic ethno-nationalism that has led Bosnia to be ambivalent about joining an initiative led by Vučić. Some leaders of Montenegro, like Milo Đukanović, also oppose the rise of Serbian nationalism in the country. These problems will not be solved by a purely economic approach, he believes.

“Anyone who thinks this is a confidence-building measure, I think they underestimate the dangers of this economics-centric approach,” Vogel said.

“Economic cooperation will sooner or later come up against the reality of political tensions and political obstacles. The EU and the international community more generally tend to look to the economy when political issues get too difficult. And it never worked because political issues will catch up with economic issues, ”he said.

But the EU in particular is happy to see how it goes, according to Vogel. “There are a few people in the European institutions who are ready to admit – only in private, only in private – that enlargement is dead, that accession will not take place, except perhaps for Serbia – and Montenegro And I think they are thinking about the alternatives, ”Vogel explains.

And although countries in the region still intend to become members of the EU, the Open Balkan initiative would not be a big enough consolation prize instead of EU membership.

“We have had over 25 years of pious discourse on regional integration, peacebuilding, reform, rule of law and European values. I think it would be quite difficult for officials to the EU to suddenly say “okay, you have your mini European economic area in the Balkans, so mission accomplished,” he said.

“Yet I can see that this is happening, as the EU is desperate to claim some level of success and to recognize what is obvious to all of us – that it is disengaging from the region in so many ways.”

About Eleanor Blackburn

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