Tirana (Albania) Sep 15: Germany and the European Union (EU) encourage the Western Balkan (WB) countries to strengthen their regional cooperation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said here on Tuesday.
"Germany has its own interest in the membership of the WB countries in the EU, but another cooperation at a regional level is an idea that has been accepted by the EU and Germany," Merkel told a joint press conference with Prime Minister Edi Rama during her official visit to Albania.
The WB countries were in different stages of becoming part of the EU, and were also part of the Berlin Process intergovernmental cooperation initiative, which was launched in 2014.
Merkel welcomed the Open Balkan initiative, which aims to replicate the Schengen zone's free flow of people, noting that "it is a cooperation that strengthens the Berlin Process."
Merkel praised Albania and North Macedonia's progress towards EU accession, saying that both countries have fulfilled the criteria for membership negotiations, which had to be postponed following a veto from EU-member Bulgaria.
The German chancellor spoke highly of the bilateral ties between Albania and Germany, and Rama thanked Merkel for choosing Albania as the last stop on her tour of the Balkans.
Rama said that the 'Open Balkan' initiative is the "offspring" of the Berlin Process and the two initiatives do not contradict each other.
Merkel's visit to Tirana followed her visit to Belgrade, Serbia, where she said it was in the EU's strategic interests to integrate the Balkan states into the bloc, urging the countries to continue with the reforms.
While in Tirana on Tuesday, Merkel also met with the leaders of the other WB countries.