By Branko Filipovic
NOVI SAD, Serbia, Oct 10 (Reuters) - The leaders of Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia agreed on Thursday to allow passport-free travel for their citizens by 2021 and a speedier cross-border flow of goods to boost regional economic development.
Six Western Balkan countries -- Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia -- hope to join the European Union, but their accession has been slowed down by Brexit and other factors. Their mutual relations are also burdened by the legacy of the bloody wars of the 1990s in the Balkans.
"We aim to create conditions for people to use only national identification cards for crossing the borders (of the three countries) by end-2021," Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told a joint news conference with the prime ministers of Albania and North Macedonia.
The declaration is "meant for the benefit of the people who deserve A better future, higher living standards and a lower unemployment rate," he added.
Their move is not a specific requirement of the EU but comes at a time when there is growing resistance within the bloc to further enlargement.
"We are all on an European path, but we have agreed to decide our own fate," Vucic said.
Diplomatic sources told Reuters on Thursday that France was opposed to launching membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania for now because the bloc faced too many other challenges.
Of the six Western Balkan countries, Serbia and Montenegro are already negotiating EU membership. Albania and North Macedonia are seeking candidate status, while Bosnia and Kosovo are the furthest behind in the process.
All six countries must improve the rule of law and the business climate and clamp down on corruption and organised crime before joining the EU.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said continued tensions, such as those between Serbia and Kosovo, should not discourage regional leaders from pursuing such initiatives as the passport agreement that would bring benefits to all.
"The year 2021 is our deadline to make sure this region is open," Rama said.
Vucic said the next meeting is scheduled for Nov 10 at the Ohrid lake resort in North Macedonia and that other Western Balkan countries would be invited to join. (Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Gareth Jones)