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'Little Schengen' — Western Balkan nations agree to boost ties for EU bid

'Little Schengen' — Western Balkan nations agree to boost ties for EU bid

The Western Balkan countries on Saturday held their third meeting in the last three months to forge closer cooperation in their quest to join the 28-nation European Union bloc.

The leaders of these nations met in the Albanian capital, Tirana, to strengthen their "little Schengen" initiative.

Prime Ministers Edi Rama of Albania and Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia, along with Serbian President Aleksander Vucic and Montenegro's Milo Djukanovic discussed concrete steps that are needed to establish a free trade zone to attract more foreign investment.

"The Western Balkan initiative is to take ahead some processes started for years and to carry out deals agreed for many years,'' said PM Rama. "We should be courageous to cooperate for our future," he added.

President Vucic said the Western Balkan leaders discussed agreements "to make our cooperation more intensive.''

Read more: EU leaders leave Balkan states hanging on accession talks

During the next meeting in Serbia, the countries will present a "developing map'' with the help from the World Bank and the European Commission.

The European Union has pledged €1.2 billion ($1.33 billion) for Western Balkans, according to Rama.

Stumbling blocks

Although the six Balkan countries are taking joint measures to boost their chances to join the bloc, all of them are at different stages in their EU bid.

While Montenegro and Serbia are already holding accession talks with Brussels, the Albanian and North Macedonian bids were blocked in October by some EU members.

Read more: Opinion: EU's 'no' to Western Balkans could spark conflict

"Albania and North Macedonia expect positive messages next spring,'' said North Macedonia's Zaev.

Bosnia and Kosovo did not participate in the Tirana summit. Kosovo President Hashim Thaci says the meetings are "meaningless'' as long as Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina do not recognize his country's independence.

PM Rama urged Kosovo and Bosnia to ignore differences and look for common interests.

Read more: A Cold War solution for Serbia and Kosovo?

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