Their EU accession blocked by France, Albania and North Macedonia are opting for a regional, if temporary, solution. Together with Serbia, the Balkan states are looking to create their own version of the EU’s passport-free Schengen Area.
- Citizens of the three countries would no longer need a passport to cross the border, but only have to show an ID card.
- Labor movement would be liberalized through the mutual recognition of diplomas and qualifications.
- Students could go on exchange.
- Capital flows would be smoothened.
The other non-EU countries in the region — Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo — have been given the green light to join.
Into their own hands
The Western Balkans have not taken EU membership off the table, but they are taking matters into their own hands. In an interview with the Financial Times, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić said, “We need to take care of ourselves.”
Some observers have called the proposal a stunt; a means to put pressure on the EU. Others praise the Balkan states for taking the initiative.
Making it work
Whatever the goals, the challenge is making it work.
Regional mistrust and bilateral issues have not disappeared overnight. Kosovo remains unrecognized by Bosnia and Serbia. Montenegro is skeptical about the initiative, arguing the goal should be for the Balkan states to join Schengen, not create their own version. Creating a single market usually leads to a crowding out of less efficient local markets. Labor migration could drive down wages for low-skilled workers in the richer nations. While the net economic effect should be positive, a region governed by ethnic tensions may not respond well to all the results.
Economic integration would undoubtedly help the Balkans, but the current political climate makes its realization uncertain.