TIRANA -- Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have signed a raft of deals and agreed to further their Open Balkan initiative to promote ties as the three countries’ leaders held two days of talks in Tirana.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hosted the December 20-21 summit in the Albanian capital with his counterpart from North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
The sides inked six agreements on the labor market, electronic identification, and the lifting of nontariff barriers for businesses, among other things.
They had previously decided to abolish customs controls from January 1, 2023.
Rama said the Open Balkan initiative's goal is to establish a single market among its members and pave the way for EU membership.
"Our goal is that the Balkans have no more borders for people, for the movement of goods, capital, and services -- four European Union principles," Albania's prime minister said.
The Open Balkan initiative, launched in October 2019, "is one of the biggest ideas in today's Europe," according to Vucic.
"The most important goal is to unite people who have been focusing more on the past rather than the future. It is important to connect people and their businesses," the Serbian leader said.
According to Zaev, "Open Balkan is our way forward on the road to the European Union."
The three Western Balkan countries are at different stages on the path to EU membership.
While Serbia has launched full membership negotiations, accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania have been delayed.
"We agreed that our three countries would not be held hostage to the failure of the European Union to unblock our European integration process," Zaev said. "That process can be stopped in Brussels, but the Europeanization and implementation of European values in Northern Macedonia, Serbia, and Albania have no reason to be on hold."
Officials of the three other Western Balkan countries seeking to join the EU -- Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro -- have expressed skepticism toward the Open Balkan initiative and rejected calls to join.
Vucic's arrival in Tirana on December 20 triggered a protest by thousands of Albanians opposed to his visit and the summit.
The rally was called by former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who said the Open Balkan initiative was meant to "establish Serbian hegemony in the region."
The next Open Balkan summit is scheduled for February in North Macedonia's capital, Skopje.