‘Mini-Schengen’ – An Opportunity for West Balkan Cooperation?
An initiative driven by Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia, the announcement of a West Balkan regional integration proposal, dubbed ‘mini-Schengen’, came as a surprise in October 2019. Despite Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s rejection of the claim that the ‘mini-Schengen’ is a reaction to disagreement in Brussels, it still appears that the heart of the proposal reflects the West Balkan states’ aspiration for European Union (EU) membership which continues to be hampered by the internal conflicts and the unsettling impact of Brexit on discussions of EU enlargement.
A core issue is the complex relationship amongst the West Balkan states, with the ‘mini-Schengen’ potentially favouring the advanced Serbian economy and the political interests of the initial three nations. If skilled workers predominantly favour opportunities in Serbia, brain drain could negatively impact neighbouring economies as has occurred in the EU’s Schengen Area. While offers of inclusion have been made towards Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo (with all but Kosovo attending a follow-up meeting in November 2019), their absence in initial discussions has also created an image of division.
Questions over economic expediency are also pertinent, as all West Balkan states are current members of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA). The deal already facilitates trade in the region through tariff and non-tariff barrier reduction commitments. This reinforces the interpretation of the ‘mini-Schengen’ as partially an exercise in political manoeuvring with the EU and neighbouring states.
Damaged relations between Kosovo and Serbia are another concern. Belgrade refuses to recognise Kosovo’s independence, although it has shown willingness towards concessions if it might enable EU accession. Kosovo reacted in 2018, when it placed a 100% custom tariff on goods imported from Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. These standoffs highlight regional fragility, suggesting the need for reform beyond CEFTA.
Normalising State Relationships in the West Balkans
Positive horizons may lie ahead. A crucial development is Kosovo’s move away from its 2018 tariffs on 1st April 2020. Another agreement resumed commercial flights between Kosovo and Serbia after two decades of conflict. These changes suggest new opportunities for cooperation and increased trade integration, perhaps indicating a slow thaw of the historically icy relationship.
Kosovo’s previous Prime Minister Albin Kurti, toppled by a no-confidence vote, remained cold to the idea of the ‘mini-Schengen’, concerned that it sidestepped the issue of Kosovo’s recognition. Perhaps the new government led by Avdullah Hoti, which has recently sought to further repair its trading relationship with Serbia, could see the agreement come to fruition post-COVID-19 in conjunction with independence recognition through renewed diplomacy.
Nonetheless, protest by Kurti’s Vetevendosje party over the legitimacy of Kosovo’s new government demonstrates that major political roadblocks still exist. This manifests both within and between West Balkan states, due to a history of conflict, disparate values, and differing political agendas.
With the need for cooperation more pronounced in a COVID-19 world, the ‘mini-Schengen’ could provide an important forum for reconciliation, recovery and a dialogue-based integrative approach that aims to harmonise West Balkan values. Animosities can be mitigated by an alignment of norms with the source of the proposal’s so-called namesake, the EU, founded on the respect for democracy, equality, the rule of law, and rights of minority groups.
A Tentative Outlook
While Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo have reasons to be sceptical of the ‘mini-Schengen’ proposal, good faith negotiations hold the possibility of regional stability, normalised state relationships, and reduced conflict. Such an opportunity is worth carefully pursuing.
Nathan Ball is currently completing a Masters of International Relations at the University of Melbourne and is the the Events Director at the Young Diplomats Society