Balkans leaders meet to discuss mini-Schengen after EU snub

The leaders of Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia on Sunday met at Lake Ohrid, in North Macedonia, to discuss setting up a common market, news wires reported. The summit comes weeks after the European Union snubbed bids by Skopje and Tirana to open membership talks.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, his North Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who launched the common market initiative in October, attended Sunday's meeting. "We should not be afraid of our own shadow and to do something for ourselves," Vucic told reporters. "We all want to be part of EU," but "it depends on them," he added. Serbia opened membership talks with the bloc in 2014.

The new initiative is aimed at establishing the free movement of goods and people by 2021 in the divided region. In Ohrid the three leaders agreed on introducing a common work permit and allowing travel between the three countries with an ID card only. They also discussed setting up a "mini Schengen" visa-free zone to facilitate free movement of foreign visitors within the three countries. And they agreed to ease customs procedures and border controls to accelerate the passage of trucks.

Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo have also been invited to take part in the project. But while Bosnia and Montenegro sent representatives to Sunday's meeting, Kosovo was absent. "The vision of Kosovo is its accession to EU and NATO" which cannot be replaced by "any other regional initiative", Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said in a message posted on social media. "This initiative makes no sense as long as Serbia and Bosnia do not recognise Kosovo independence", he added.

Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have a combined population of nearly 20 million people.

France led last month's opposition to the EU membership talks for Albania and North Macedonia, although Denmark and the Netherlands also expressed reservations.

Albania will host the next meeting of the Balkans initiative on 21 December.

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