By Genc Pollo*
“Mountain in labour a mouse is born” that Esopian fable came to my mind when I heard the news of the meeting in Novi Sad, Serbia of the government leaders from North Macedonia, Albania and the host country in order to discuss a Mini Schengen Agreement.
Maybe that is because of the rather misplaced and pretentious name or maybe because of some creeping fatigue with photo op summits that one barely remembers the day after. Some would counter that it is nice to see leaders talking in friendly get togethers in a region that saw bloodshed not so long ago. In this spirit a few years ago the European Commission officials and Western Balkans politicians played football in Vienna with then Prime Minister Gruevski scoring goals. Not being nihilistic by nature and hoping for an added value I perused the page long Novi Sad statement. The only new and specific thing I could find was the commitment to have until 2021 the nationals of the three countries cross the respective borders by using only the ID card.
Well, fact is that since 2009 Albanian citizens travel to North Macedonia and also to Kosovo and Montenegro, by showing their ID at the border. North Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro have the same border regime while Kosovo has it with North Macedonia and Montenegro. Again since 2010 Albanian citizen travel visa free to Serbia and vice versa. If they would be able to use just the ID as promised in Novi Sad this would be the only concrete improvement in regional cross border travel requirements. It may boost the numbers a bit since for instance only 55 000 Serbs visited Albania this year so far.
All this is not much but is still fine. It has little to do with the EU Schengen system. In the EU it meant long years of hard work to harmonise police and border control standards and to put in place an information exchange regime coupled with personal data protection until the border post were removed. Such a process is not very likely in the Western Balkans not simply because of distrust rooted in history but also because it could interfere with the EU integration of each country.
The most quoted reference in Novi Sad was a World Bank study which had found out that truck drivers wait for 20 million hours annually for border and customs inspections. While enhancing border infrastructure and simplifying border trade procedure without assuming unnecessary risks in smuggling criminality and terrorism prevention would be welcome there was nothing specific about it in the Novi Sad declaration. We shouldn’t also forget that Western Balkan countries and Moldova are already in a free trade area called CEFTA.
News had it that those issues would be tackled in the follow up meeting in Ohrid next month where all six Western Balkans countries would be invited. But here we start really talking about the obvious elephant in the room; which is the unresolved issues left over from the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Kosovo and Serbia after a long and ineffective Brussels facilitated dialogues don’t really recognise travel and vehicles documents and work on impromptu and unreliable arrangements; mutual official recognition will require heavy lifting that no Ohrid participant can shoulder. Add to that Bosnia-Hercegovina with her internal problems that mean limited ability to engage in such external relations and the picture becomes complete.
The Novi Sad leaders can meet and talk without EU and US chaperones and this is fine. Whether such talk can bring about positive change and meaningful benefit for their people has yet to be proved.
*Genc Pollo MP
fmr. Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on European Integration
fmr. Deputy PM, Minister of Education, Minister of Telecom&IT