The presidents of both Serbia and Albania have signed a new deal, dubbed a ‘Mini-Schengen’ agreement, which will allow passport-free movement between the countries and could change travel restrictions with the EU.

A new deal, part of the so-called ‘Mini-Schengen initiative’ has just been signed by both Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama during an online meeting also attended by the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev.

This new accord will permit freedom of movement between the 2 countries for both Serbian and Albanian citizens without the need to present a passport at border control checkpoints: they will simply be able to present a national ID card to gain entry.

The Mini-Schengen action plan for freedom of movement and a common regional market between Western Balkan states now has the support of Serbia, Northern Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Montenegro the only holdout.

Changes implicated by the Mini-Schengen agreement

Between 2021-2024, the action plan aims to implement the four freedoms on which the European Union is based and that EU countries currently enjoy: goods, services, and capital in addition to freedom of movement.

During the deal signing, the leaders of all 3 countries present also signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in the battle against the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which includes details about travel restrictions.

Under this deal, Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia have agreed that negative PCR tests for COVID-19 will not be required for travel between the 3 countries, and that information about coronavirus cases in the 3 countries will be shared between them.

North Macedonian Prime Minister Zaev said that the deal will also allow residents of any of the countries to receive free treatment for coronavirus if they become infected while visiting one of the other states.

“If our citizens need to be treated in Albania or Serbia, they will not have to pay out of their own pocket. Also, citizens of Serbia and Albania will not pay if they find themselves receiving treatment on our territory,” Zaev explained.

Existing accords between Balkan States

The mini-Schengen regional cooperation initiative, modelled after the Schengen Agreement which allows passport-free movement between the 26 European countries in the Schengen Area, was first created by the 3 Western Balkan countries in October 2019.

However, the program is not the first time that countries in the region have made a deal for economic cooperation. In fact, 6 Balkan countries, also including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, and Macedonia, have been working together under the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) for over a decade.

Through the CEFTA agreement, many of the countries involved have already seen a high foreign trade surplus, with Serbia exporting over 3.06 billion euros worth of goods to CEFTA countries, and receiving imports worth over 978 million euros, in 2019 alone.

The signing of the mini-Schengen agreement is only set to strengthen the regional market, with Zeljko Sain, a professor at the Faculty of Economics in Sarajevo, claiming that the deal gives the market an “opportunity to prove its competitiveness” and improve the ease of import of products from key industries.

He also stated that the ultimate goal of the agreement is mutual cooperation with the aim of exporting joint products to third markets and, eventually, entry to the European Union for the countries involved. If any of the participating countries join the EU, their CEFTA membership will end.

How the Mini-Schengen accord will change the EU

The signing of the Mini-Schengen deal between Albania, Serbia, and North Macedonia opens up the possibility for the free movement arrangement to be extended and include countries that are already part of the European Schengen Area.

Indeed, the reopening of borders of 3 Central European countries (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 checks, tests and quarantine for travellers could be abolished.

Furthermore, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have also abolished the travel ban to contain the spread of COVID-19 between their countries, in order to facilitate the free movement of their citizens.

However, Margaritis Schinas, the Vice President of the European Commission, is not keen on the idea of a ‘mini-Schengen’ area within the European Union continuing past the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In no way will the intention to return to our usual Schengen, removing the current restrictions on our internal borders, be replaced by a kind of regional mini Schengens that fragment our single market and discriminate against non-participating Member States. This is not possible,” he asserted.

In particular, he stressed that he did not wish the so-called ‘Baltic travel bubble’ to become a long-term feature, although he did not particularly oppose the lifting of restrictions on internal travel between EU States with similar epidemiological levels during the pandemic.

This new accord between Albania and Serbia occurs just when the EU is planning to overhaul the Schengen Area.

How Mini-Schengen will affect travellers from other countries

In addition to facilitating tourist travel between Member States, the signing of the mini-Schengen deal between Serbia and Albania seems as though it could increase the chances of the countries of joining the EU and Schengen Area in the near future.

If these Balkan countries do join the Schengen Area by 2022, it may be necessary for all third-country nationals who wish to travel to the region to obtain an ETIAS visa waiver for Europe before they can visit for short stays.

The ETIAS travel authorisation is being implemented for all of the countries currently in the Schengen Area to pre-screen visa-free travellers before they arrive in the region, with the aim of providing a better, more modern travel experience and also strengthening Europe’s external borders.

Once the system is introduced, travellers will be required to submit an ETIAS application online at least 72 hours before their intended travel date to the Schengen Area, and receive approval before boarding a flight to Europe.