‘Mini Schengen’—moving toward freedom and markets
French President Emmanuel Macron’s spearheading opposition to block European Union accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia during the European Council’s recent fall meeting is not only dangerously and severely undermining the credibility of the EU accession process, but also indicating to the non-EU countries in the Western Balkans and elsewhere that their future lies solely in their hands and that they can’t rely on the European Union to support them in efforts to strengthen their institutions, reform their public policies and further liberalize their economies.
The Western Balkans are not wasting any time lamenting what outgoing European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker defines as a “historic mistake.” Instead, the Western Balkan countries have their own plans for bold and deep institutional reforms that will not only liberalize and deliver a boost to their economies, but will also, most importantly, significantly improve the level of freedom enjoyed by the people in the region.
In this context, three Western Balkan countries—Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia—are advancing regional cooperation by moving ahead with a so-called “mini Schengen,” which is expected to better safeguard freedom of movement and freedom to trade. At a time when protectionism and nationalism are emerging across the world—which are perhaps the motives behind President Macron’s decision to veto the accessions talks—the Western Balkans must continue to pursue liberal reforms.
No one can stop the Western Balkan countries, apart from themselves, from upholding freedom above all else, which is a far cry from where they stood not that long ago.
The main obstacle to a higher level of human freedom in the Western Balkan countries is their inability to strengthen the rule of law. To achieve that, these countries would need to place considerable institutional emphasis on judicial independence, the impartiality of the courts, protection of property rights and reliability of police.
The next best move for the governments in the Western Balkans is to reduce, simplify or harmonize compliance and regulatory trade barriers to lower the cost of exporting and importing and time spent at the borders, and remove restrictions for their citizens on travel within the region. Just on non-physical trade barriers in the Western Balkans, the World Bank estimates that trucks lose more than 26 million hours a year at border crossings. Due to time spent at the border crossings, the number of trucks and drivers needed in the Western Balkans is approximately five times of the number needed in the EU.
Unquestionably, “mini Schengen” and other similar regional initiatives will find opposition in interest groups that are benefiting from restrictions and limitations on people’s movement and economic activity across boarders in the Western Balkans. However, at the same time, millions of people support these changes, as they cannot wait for the government to move out of their way.
Any of the measures listed above increases human freedom, which would consequently not only have a positive impact on economic growth, foreign direct investment and wellbeing of the citizens, but would also reduce poverty levels, economic inequalities and increase political freedom.
That said, establishing the free movement of people, goods, services and capital in the Western Balkans is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo will join the initiative. There’s no need to wait for EU membership to increase the level of freedom in these countries. After all, the goal is not to enter the European Union; the goal is for citizens of these countries to enjoy freedom, prosperity and well-being.
And finally, as long as leaders in the Western Balkans pursue liberal reforms to increase the level of freedom of their citizens, they are not on the path to a new Yugoslavia, as many critics of “mini Schengen” claim. Instead, this initiative is yet another step away from repression and socialism and toward freedom and the markets.