SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — Frustrated by their countries’ sluggish progress toward joining the European Union, three Western Balkan leaders moved Wednesday to further boost regional economic and labor integration.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania and Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski of North Macedonia signed deals on tax administration, tourism and cultural cooperation, and on mutual recognition of academic degrees for labor market purposes.
North Macedonia’s Kovachevski, who hosted the meeting at the lakeside Ohrid resort, said the tax deal would “better enable the movement of goods, capital and services. These are steps being taken toward establishing practices used by the European Union.”
“The Western Balkans must be part of the European Union,” he said. “The war in Ukraine is a risk for increased influence of third parties in the region. Leaving a geostrategic gap in this part of Europe is not an option.”
The initiative of the three countries, which has been dubbed “Open Balkans,” began in 2019. Fellow Western Balkan nations Montenegro and Bosnia have expressed interest in joining the initiative.
Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia are at different stages on the path to EU membership.
Serbia has launched full membership negotiations, while Albania and North Macedonia have fulfilled the criteria for beginning the talks.
But neighboring EU member Bulgaria opposes North Macedonia’s bid, citing a bilateral dispute over history and national identity. Launching accession talks requires unanimous approval from all 27 EU nations.
Because Albania’s trajectory is linked to North Macedonia’s, Bulgaria’s veto has prevented both countries from moving forward.
Albania’s Rama was dismissive Wednesday of the Bulgarian approach.
“Bulgaria, at some point, will get bored with this game and will find another toy to play with,” he said.
As to the EU’s position, he said: “If they want a wedding, we’re ready. If they don’t, we’re still here. No problem.”
“I’ll say this bluntly,” Rama added. “When I used to go to Brussels, they would encourage me. Now, when I go to Brussels, I’m the one who has to do the encouraging.”