The presidents of Serbia and Albania have signed a new agreement known as a “Mini-Schengen” agreement, which will allow passport-free travel between the two countries and may change travel restrictions with the EU.
During an online conference attended by the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, both Serbian President Aleksandar Vui and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama signed a new pact as part of the so-called “Mini-Schengen plan.”
This new agreement will allow Serbian and Albanian individuals to freely travel between the two countries without the need to submit a passport at border control checkpoints; instead, they will be able to present a national ID card to obtain access.
Serbia, Northern Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have now backed the Mini-Schengen action plan for freedom of movement and a common regional market among Western Balkan states, with Montenegro the lone holdout.
CHANGES IMPLICATED BY THE MINI-SCHENGEN AGREEMENT
The action plan aims to implement the four freedoms that the European Union is based on and that EU countries currently enjoy: goods, services, and capital, in addition to freedom of movement, between 2021 and 2024.
During the signing of the agreement, the presidents of all three countries present signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in the fight against the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which includes information on travel restrictions.
Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia have agreed that negative COVID-19 PCR tests will not be required for travel between the three countries, and that information about coronavirus cases in the three countries will be shared.
North Macedonian Prime Minister Zaev stated that the agreement will also allow inhabitants of any of the nations to obtain free coronavirus treatment if they become sick while visiting another country.
“If our countrymen require treatment in Albania or Serbia, they will not have to pay out of pocket.” Furthermore, citizens of Serbia and Albania will not be charged if they receive treatment on our territory,” Zaev explained.
EXISTING ACCORDS BETWEEN BALKAN STATES
The three Western Balkan nations launched the mini-Schengen regional cooperation project in October 2019, modelled after the Schengen Agreement, which permits passport-free transit between the 26 European countries in the Schengen Area.
However, this is not the first time that countries in the area have agreed to cooperate economically. Indeed, for more than a decade, six Balkan countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, and Macedonia, have collaborated under the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA).
Many of the countries involved in the CEFTA agreement have already seen a high foreign trade surplus, with Serbia exporting over 3.06 billion euros to CEFTA countries and receiving imports worth over 978 million euros in 2019.
The signing of the mini-Schengen agreement will only strengthen the regional market, according to Zeljko Sain, a professor at Sarajevo’s Faculty of Economics, who claims that the agreement gives the market a “opportunity to prove its competitiveness” and improves the ease of import of products from key industries.
He also added that the ultimate purpose of the agreement is mutual collaboration with the goal of selling joint products to third markets and, eventually, for the nations concerned, membership into the European Union. CEFTA membership will be terminated if any of the participant nations join the EU.
HOW THE MINI-SCHENGEN ACCORD WILL CHANGE THE EU
The signing of the Mini-Schengen agreement between Albania, Serbia, and North Macedonia opens the door for the free movement agreement to be expanded to include countries that are already members of the European Schengen Area.
Indeed, the reopening of three Central European countries’ borders (Austria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) following coronavirus restrictions had already been dubbed a “mini-Schengen Area” within the EU by their leaders, with Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petrice even speculating that travel checks, tests, and quarantine could be eliminated.
Furthermore, in order to facilitate the free movement of their citizens, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have lifted the travel ban in order to limit the spread of COVID-19 between their countries.
However, the European Commission’s Vice President, Margaritis Schinas, is opposed to the notion of a “mini-Schengen” zone within the European Union lasting beyond the conclusion of the coronavirus epidemic.
“The goal to return to our typical Schengen, abolishing the existing limitations on our internal borders, will in no way be substituted by a form of regional mini-Schengen that fragments our single market and discriminates against non-participating Member States.” “This is not feasible,” he stated emphatically.
He specifically said that he did not want the so-called “Baltic travel bubble” to become a long-term feature, yet he did not object to relaxing restrictions on internal travel between EU States with comparable epidemiological levels during the epidemic.
This new agreement between Albania and Serbia comes as the EU prepares to revamp the Schengen Area.
HOW MINI-SCHENGEN WILL AFFECT TRAVELLERS FROM OTHER COUNTRIES
The signing of the mini-Schengen agreement between Serbia and Albania appears to boost the nations’ chances of joining the EU and the Schengen Area in the near future, in addition to simplifying tourist travel between Member States.
If these Balkan nations begin the process of entering the Schengen Area by November 2023, all third-country nationals wishing to visit the region may be required to get an ETIAS visa waiver for Europe before they may visit for short visits.
The ETIAS travel authorization is being implemented for all Schengen countries as well as nations in the process of joining Schengen, including Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus. This is to check visa-free visitors before they reach in the area, with the goal of delivering a more contemporary travel experience while simultaneously reinforcing Europe’s external borders.
After the system is implemented, travellers will be forced to submit an ETIAS application online before travelling to the Schengen Area, and they will need to get clearance before boarding a flight to Europe.