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Western Balkans discuss concrete steps on closer cooperation

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Leaders of the Western Balkan countries on Saturday met in the Albanian capital, Tirana, to discuss how to forge closer regional cooperation in their quest to join the European Union.

The initiative dubbed as "little Schengen," after the EU's free transit zone, held its third meeting in the last three months. Prime ministers Edi Rama of Albania and Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia, along with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Montenegro’s Milo Djukanovic met to discuss concrete steps for establishing a free trade zone to boost economic growth and 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 Rama. “We should be courageous to cooperate for our future.” Vucic said they discussed agreements and how “to make our cooperation more intensive.”

The six Western Balkan countries are at different stages in the path to join the EU. While Montenegro and Serbia have already opened accession talks, the bids of Albania and North Macedonia to start the process were blocked in October by some EU members led by France.

“Albania and North Macedonia expect positive messages next spring,” said Zaev. In the next meeting in Serbia the countries will have ready a “developing map” which is to be prepared with the World Bank and the European commission.

Brussels has pledged to spend 1.2 billion Euro grant for the Western Balkans, said Rama. Bosnia and Kosovo did not send a representative to the summit. Kosovo President Hashim Thaci has refused to take part in the summits, saying there were "meaningless” as long as Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina do not recognize his country's independence.

Rama called on Kosovo and Bosnian leaders to leave the past behind and look for future bridges. Before the meeting the leaders visited the western port city of Durres, one of the most damaged by the Nov. 26 6.4-magnitude earthquake which killed 51 persons and destroyed more than 14,000 buildings. Search-and-rescue teams from neighboring Balkan countries were among the first to help Albania.

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