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Western Balkan leaders discuss regional cooperation in 'little Schengen' meeting

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Western Balkan leaders discuss regional cooperation in 'little Schengen' meeting
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The leaders of Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro met on Saturday to discuss how to deepen regional cooperation in the Western Balkans, including in their quest to join the European Union.

This meeting, dubbed as '``little Schengen'`` after the EU's free movement area, was the third of its kind in the last three months.

The Albanian PM Edi Rama and North Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia, along with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Montenegro's Milo Djukanovic aimed at discussing concrete steps for establishing a free trade zone to boost the region's economy.

``"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 the leaders discussed agreements and how ``to make their cooperation more intensive.

The six Western Balkan countries are eyeing more trade exchanges, but they are at different stages in the path to join the EU.

Montenegro and Serbia have already opened accession talks, while EU members led by France blocked in October the bids of Albania and North Macedonia to start the process.

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

For the next meeting, which will be held in Serbia, the countries will prepare a ``"developing map'' with help from the World Bank and the European Commission.

The EU, Rama announced, has already pledged a grant worth €1.2 billion for the Western Balkans.

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 6.4-magnitude earthquake which killed 51 persons and destroyed more than 14,000 buildings on November 26. Search-and-rescue teams from neighboring Balkan countries were among the first to help Albania.