BERLIN (Reuters) – Western Balkan ministers are set to agree on Friday on visa-free travel between the six countries and on mutual recognition of university diplomas and professional qualifications, taking a step towards EU membership.
“These three agreements clear the way for the creation of a common regional market of the Western Balkans,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said.
“By setting up this market, you are taking an important step forward in the EU accession process,” Baerbock said ahead of a meeting of Western Balkans and EU officials in Berlin.
She added that the agreements would be formally signed at a Western Balkans Summit in Berlin in November.
The European Commission last week recommended that Bosnia and Herzegovina be granted the status of candidate to join the EU, on the understanding that it reinforces democracy and takes other steps.
Some Western Balkans countries’ patience with the EU’s waiting room is wearing thin, and critics of the slow pace of further enlargement of the bloc say it leaves space for Russia and China to extend their influence in the region.
The Commission said Turkey as well as the five other Western Balkan states – Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – which all have candidate status, needed to make more progress in key reforms including rule of law, the fight against corruption and media freedom.
Baerbock said it was a priority for the German government to bring the Western Balkan countries into the EU to ensure stability and economic progress in the region.
“I call on all of you to speed up your reforms in the interest of your citizens,” she told the Western Balkans foreign ministers gathered in Berlin.
(This story has been corrected to show the agreement refers to travel without visas, not without identity cards, in the lead)
(Writing by Maria Sheahan; editing by Matthias Williams and Nick Macfie)