The leaders of several countries in the Balkans have met to discuss forming a new free-movement region in southern Europe modelled on the Schengen Area.
On 9th November 2020, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, and North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev conducted an online meeting to discuss the “mini-Schengen initiative”, as well as cooperation between the 3 states in the fight against COVID-19.
The leaders of Serbia and Albania signed a deal allowing passport-free travel between the 2 countries, marking the beginning of the new region, dubbed the “Mini Schengen Zone”.
North Macedonia and other countries in the Balkan peninsula are expected to join this new bloc of nations, which aims to create a unified market and allow citizens of member states to travel freely around the region without needing visas or passports.
The Mini Schengen Zone will be distinct from the pre-existing Schengen Area, which consists of countries in the European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
This means that Schengen visas and the upcoming ETIAS visa waiver will not be valid to enter Serbia, Albania, and other members of the new region.
Free movement and the fight against COVID-19
The Serbian, Albanian, and North Macedonian leaders met on 9 November to begin the formation of the Mini Schengen Zone.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić signed a formal agreement that will allow Serbian and Albanian nationals to travel between the 2 countries freely, without passports or visas.
In an online press conference, Rama said: “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.”
Vučić was quoted as saying:
“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.”
Vučić, Rama, and North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev also signed a Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation in the Fight against COVID-19. This outlined the following actions for the 3 nations:
- COVID-19 information will be shared between the 3 countries
- Nationals of all 3 states will be allowed to enter the others without requiring a PCR test
- If a citizen of one of the other 2 countries is hospitalised, the cost of treatment will be covered
Countries of the new Mini Schengen Zone
The recent deal signed between Albania and Serbia marks the beginning of the Mini Schengen Zone, but the move has been coming for a while.
Meetings between both countries and North Macedonia to discuss the foundation of a free travel area began in 2019. A deal was signed in October of that year to start a “mini-Schengen” initiative.
At that stage, it was expected that the following 6 Western Balkan states would make up the final roster of the Mini Schengen Zone:
- North Macedonia
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
Although relations between Serbia and Kosovo have historically been tense, September 2020 saw the signing of the “Kosovo and Serbia economic normalisation agreements”, in which both nations committed to joining the Mini Schengen Zone.
Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, however, are attempting to join the EU and are unlikely to become part of the new bloc if their applications are successful.
How is the Mini Schengen Zone related to the Schengen Area?
The new Mini Schengen Zone takes its name from the Schengen Area due to the similar idea of an open travel region, but that is where the connection ends. The 2 regions are distinct and are unlikely to share any members.
The Schengen Area is made up of countries like Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Iceland, and Germany.
The new Mini Schengen Zone will be composed of Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and possibly other countries in the Balkans.
The upcoming European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) will not be valid for travel to the Mini Schengen Zone. However, third-country nationals travelling to the Schengen Area will have to complete an ETIAS application form online prior to departure, starting from 2022.