Written by Hayley Hunter
Originally called the Mini-Schengen, leaders from Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia unveiled a new name for the initiative on June 29, 2021 - the Open Balkan Initiative. The three countries were meeting in Skopje for the Economic Forum on Regional Cooperation. While there, the three countries signed one interstate Agreement and two Memorandums of understanding, furthering their commitment to deepening political and economic ties between the countries. Leaders of the three countries initially committed to creating the initiative in October 2019.
Other Western Balkan states - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro - are skeptical of the initiative. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has called on the EU to pressure other Balkan states to join the initiative as EU accession for the region has been seemingly sidelined. Since issues within the EU affecting accession are likely to stick around for years to come, Rama thinks the EU should foster cooperation within and with the Western Balkans. However, many at the EU headquarters in Brussels are skeptical of the idea as well. The EU Special Envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue, Miroslav Lajcak, described the former Mini-Schengen (now Open Balkan) initiative as “unhealthy competition” with the European integration process in a statement issued to Radio Free Europe (REL). Serbian President Aleksander Vucic believes that the EU is against the Open Balkan initiative because they have no control over it. Brussels feels that the region should focus on fulfilling its obligations from existing agreements rather than creating new initiatives that could lead to regional disruptions.
Balkan countries like Albania, however, are tired of waiting on the EU. “This idea moves forward on the agenda that has been repeated since Thessaloniki and that forms the tangible shapes of the Berlin Process, announced in 2014. We continue to support and participate in both processes, but we do not want to wait until others say that they are ready,” said Edi Rama, Prime Minister of Albania. Many Balkan countries have been waiting on EU accessions for over a decade, with North Macedonia applying for European Union membership status in 2004. The three Balkan countries involved in the initiative do not see the new initiative as an alternative to the EU but rather complementary.
The United States has shown its support for the initiative since the beginning. U.S. Special Envoy to the Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, said that the U.S. sees the Open Balkan initiative as an opportunity and that the U.S. supports all initiatives in the region that further economic integration. He further states that “business people, youth, economies are developing and the Bosnian authorities need to understand that this is a chance and they need to go in that direction. We see the Open Balkans as an opportunity and we will ensure that this initiative is effective not for political gain, but to raise the region to the level of European standards.”
A Common Regional Market (CRM) for the Balkans already exists under the Berlin Process, an initiative to boost regional cooperation in the Western Balkans and their European integration. The CRM was launched in November 2020 after the Western Balkans recognized a need to better integrate economically within the region and the EU. The initiative is structured around the four freedoms: free movement of goods, services, capital, and people. All six Western Balkan nations - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia - have signed on to the CRM. While the Open Balkan initiative is similar and builds off the CRM, it contributes to regional integration. For example, the CRM envisioned shorter waiting times at the border for goods and citizens with only ID cards, but the Open Balkan initiative plans to eliminate border controls. Further, the CRM only has a limited free movement of labor under its framework. The CRM has produced minor political consequences, and the creation of a new initiative, albeit with only three members, shows how insignificant it is.
The most notable proposal of the Open Balkan Initiative is the proposal to create free access to the labor market in the region. If this were implemented, foreign workers from the three countries would find work as domestic citizens would. So far, Albania is the only country of the three to have a suitable legal framework for this proposal. One of the Memorandums of understanding signed in Skopje deals with this proposal. North Macedonia and Serbia signed the Memorandum anticipating necessary changes to their legal frameworks by October 15, 2021. According to the Western Balkan Chambers of Commerce, 40% of companies in Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia claim they do not have access to an adequate workforce. Allowing for the free movement of labor could help with this challenge. The three countries hope to open borders and commerce by 2023.
There are several challenges to opening up borders in the Balkans. First, abandoning border controls could allow for a greater flow of drug trafficking and other criminal activities. Balkan drug gangs have been using Ottoman-era routes to smuggle heroin from Turkey to southeast Europe. The European Commission has identified the Balkan route as one of the primary entry points for illegal drugs into Europe. Further, with high levels of corruption and organized crime in the region, getting rid of border controls could be fertile soil for criminal activities. The three countries have been progressing to address some of these potential challenges. At the Skopje Summit, they signed and announced steps to create a standard software and information sharing system to help mitigate an increased volume of cross-border criminal activities. However, sharing information will not be the entire solution to the issues above. Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia must create common regional institutions, and external tariffs will be needed in order for the initiative to run smoothly.
The future of the Open Balkan Initiative is uncertain and is likely to face many setbacks. It had just started to come to life when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, severely impacting the region’s economies. It further suffers from a lack of political and financial backing from Brussels. Jasmin Mujanovič, a political scientist specializing in Southeastern European affairs, believes that neither the Common Regional Market nor the Open Balkan Initiative will be successful so long as Serbian leaders are committed to the idea of a “Greater Serbia.” Moreover, the three Balkan countries not in on the Open Balkan initiative - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro - all contain decently sized Serb populations and perceive Serbia as a threat to their territorial integrity and sovereignty.