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Mini Schengen Zone Proclaimed in the Balkans

Mini Schengen Zone Proclaimed in the Balkans

Serbia and Albania have signed a deal that marks the start of a new free-movement region dubbed the “Mini Schengen Zone”.

On November 9, 2020, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić signed a deal allowing free movement between the 2 countries without a passport during an online meeting that also included North Macedonia.

While North Macedonia has yet to sign an agreement, it is believed that the country will also be part of the so-called mini-Schengen initiative, since plans to create a unified market in the Balkans between the 3 nations were announced in 2019.

The new region will be based on the already existing Schengen Area (made up of EU and EFTA member states), from which it takes its name. However, it will not be connected to that bloc, which includes France, Belgium, Spain, Norway, and others.

Albanian Prime Minister Rama voiced his approval of the new deal in an online press conference: “It is a good step that now Albania has freedom of movement with basically all countries, including Serbia. I think this is a very positive step.”

Serbian President Vučić agreed, releasing the following statement:

“I am sure now that we have formally solved all obstacles that Serbian citizens can go not only to the territory of Northern Macedonia but also to the territory of Albania only with an ID card, and that there will be many more Albanians in Niš and Belgrade who want to see Serbia, but also many more Serbs who want to see Durres, Tirana and every other place in Albania.”

The Serbian, Albanian, and North Macedonian leaders also signed a Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation in the Fight against COVID-19. This includes an agreement to do the following:

  • Share information related to coronavirus
  • Allow citizens of the other 2 countries to enter without a PCR test
  • Cover the cost of medical treatment for citizens of the other 2 countries if they are hospitalized

Which Countries Will Join the Mini Schengen Zone?

So far, Serbia and Albania have signed a deal that will make the Mini Schengen Zone a reality.

However, plans to create the unified market and travel area go back to a series of meetings held in 2019, which included the Republic of North Macedonia.

At that time, it was expected that all 6 countries that make up the Western Balkans would become part of the new bloc. These prospective members are:

  • Albania
  • North Macedonia
  • Serbia
  • Kosovo
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Montenegro

Kosovo has announced its intention to join the Mini Schengen Area as of the signing of the Kosovo-Serbia agreement in September 2020.

Both Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina are currently focusing on joining the European Union and may not join the Mini Schengen Zone if they are able to succeed in this.

The Road to the Mini Schengen Zone

The leaders of Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia signed a “mini-Schengen” deal in October 2019, planning to implement a system of free movement for people, goods, services, and capital within the region, including passport-free travel.

Kosovo is also in line to join the region. The lingering tensions with Serbia were somewhat eased with the signing of the 2020 Kosovo-Serbia agreement. Part of this included Kosovo agreeing to join the Mini Schengen Zone.

The premise of free movement has become an attractive one as Albania has transformed itself into a popular vacation hotspot. More and more Serbians have been visiting the country’s beaches in recent years.

In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, Albania’s borders remained open, allowing holidaymakers to come to the Adriatic and Ionian coasts. According to Aleksandar Senicic from the National Association of Travel Agencies, Albania received 5 times as many tourists as in previous years.

This trend is likely to continue with the advent of the Mini Schengen Zone. It will be easier for visitors from Serbia and other eventual member states to take vacations in Albania and, likewise, for Albanians to visit other countries in the region.

Is the Mini Schengen Zone Connected to the Schengen Area?

While the name of the initiative refers to the Schengen Area, the Mini Schengen Zone will be a separate entity.

Unless the plan changes to merge the 2 regions, the Schengen visa and ETIAS for Americans will not be valid for entry to Serbia, Albania, or other members of the new bloc.

The ETIAS visa waiver application will be a requirement for US citizens to visit Schengen member states such as France, Spain, Germany, and Switzerland starting from 2022.

It is currently unknown if the Mini Schengen Zone plans to introduce a similar electronic travel authorization for third-country nationals.