Relations between Albania and Kosovo have sunk to new lows after a German official hinted at support for the long-disputed “Open Balkan” initiative. Kosovo is resolutely opposed to the project.
Previously dubbed the Balkan “Mini-Schengen,” the project was renamed “Open Balkan” last month.
Under the scheme, North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania plan to scrap almost all border obstacles for citizens and businesses by 2023. The move would end long waits for travellers at border crossings, and eliminate complicated paperwork for companies operating between the countries.
Last week, a spokesman for the German government told a Kosovan news portal that it is Berlin’s view that “any regional cooperation in Western Balkans is useful.”
“At the same time, it is important that cooperation remains comprehensive and open for the six countries in the region. This is the reason why we support the Common Regional Market Action Plan],” he continued.
Not all Western Balkan countries are on board with the Open Balkan plan, however. Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro have all withheld support for the initiative for different reasons.
Authorities in Bosnia and Montenegro say they see no particular benefits from the scheme, as easing restrictions on travel and trade is already covered by the wider Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), and by bilateral agreements between countries in the regions.
Kosovo has voiced objection to the Open Balkan initiative on political grounds.
“For us, the so-called ‘Mini-Schengen’ is without any vision for the region,” Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti told Radio Free Europe, “We have proposed advancing regional cooperation from CEFTA to SEFTA, according to EFTA-EEA model, from which all Western Balkans countries would benefit simultaneously.”
Hours after the comment from the German representative, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama hit out at Kosovan leaders opposed to the Open Balkan plan.
“Surprise! Apparently the German government supports the Open Balkan, differently from what is being told to people in Prishtina and Tirana,” Rama declared.
His claims were quickly disputed by Jeton Zylfaj, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s advisor.
“‘Mini-Schengen’ is an unnecessary duplication. Edi Rama, let’s work together on the Berlin Process,” he wrote.
At a formal session in Skopje last month, leaders from North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania signed three documents codifying the Open Balkan agreement.
The first memorandum refers to easing trade and speeding up the transport at border crossings, while the second envisages the unification of labour markets. The third document charts regional cooperation on natural catastrophes, including prevention and the provision of aid.
The next meeting of the three Open Balkan leaders is set to take place by the end of the year in Tirana, Albania.
Photo by Ingo Joseph from Pexels