A popular insurance company add plays on the promise of a father to his daughter to call her while being on a business trip. When he makes the call despite facing all imaginable challenges he responds to the cheerful voice of his kid on the other side of the line: a promise is a promise.
Keeping promises is as important in human relations, as it is in politics and international relations.
In June 2003, exactly twenty years ago, at its Summit in Thessaloniki in Greece the European Union leaders made a promise to the Western Balkans countries: “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.” These were hopeful times in European history. The largest expansion of the European Union was ongoing, with ten countries joining a year later, and Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. The last country that made it was Croatia ten years ago.
Ever since, the promised European dream has been a common strategic goal for the nations in the Western Balkans. The political mood on the continent however changed quickly and EU enlargement ran out of steam.
First, the efforts to consolidate the European project by adopting a European Constitution was abandoned after French and Dutch voters rejected it. Then it came the European debt crisis, followed by the migration crisis, Brexit and Covid-19 pandemic. Democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland aggravated the enlargement fatigue and planted second thoughts in some old member states about the benefits of further expansion.
To be fair, Western Balkan countries did not exactly help their case either. The enlargement fatigue of the promised land was met with reform fatigue on the part of the candidates. While transposing the European norms and standards into domestic legislation have been progressing with steady pace, clientelistic party politics and rampant corruption have undermined democratic institutions of the countries in the region rated in the grey zone between democracy and autocracy by Freedom House.
The occasional democratic drive in one or another Western Balkan country, rather than embraced, has been discouraged by vetoes of individual member states or met with a disposition of a bureaucrat who is tasked to come up with excuses why progress is not possible.
Having simply too little to show two decades since the Thessaloniki promise, it is no wonder that the European dream increasingly looks like a road to nowhere. This in turn is embraced by the Russian narrative: “the West cannot be trusted and will never deliver”.
It is difficult to come up with a better test for EU’s credibility and commitment in the Balkans than the case of North Macedonia, a country emblematic for unfair treatment in the process. Having avoided the wars in former Yugoslavia, it started its ominous journey before Croatia. A baby born when the country was granted candidate status is coming out of age this year. In 2009, after a record time in the waiting room, the European Commission recommended the start of the membership talks. Hitherto, member states always followed such recommendations and talks were opened. Not in this case. Not then, not after eleven such recommendations.
The reason for the lost generations was not lack of reforms. It was the name dispute with Greece. In 2018 I signed the Prespa Agreement solving this seemingly intractable problem. The breakthrough was praised as a remarkable success by the democratic world, and European leaders rushed to Skopje to promise Macedonian citizens the start of the long-awaited accession talks.
The historic opportunity was however missed. The EU broke its promise sending waves of disappointment and disillusionment throughout the region. The momentum was lost because France demanded change of the methodology of the accession process first. When this job was done, Bulgaria turned from a champion to the biggest obstructer, taking enlargement hostage to revisionist demands on history, identity and the Macedonian language.
In the face of the full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine and the subsequent Ukrainian application for EU membership, the club made another promise, giving candidacy to Ukrainians and Moldova. Europe indeed is what this war is all about, not only because it takes place on European soil. It was Europe’s soft power that inspired Ukraine and in turn got Putin worried to the point of occupying Crimea and Donbass before starting the all-out invasion.
It is often mistakenly said that Putin’s brutal onslaught changed everything. This is not true. What changed everything is the determination and the heroic fight of the Ukrainians for their freedom and democracy, for their right to choose their own destiny. They want to be an equal member of the European family, having taken the words of European leaders very seriously.
In this watershed times for the continent in a fiercely contested world, the EU must think big again, act strategically and start delivering on its promises also for its own sake. Reviving the integration of the countries in the Western Balkans, a region encircled by member states, will close the pockets of instability that can be fueled by Kremlin, and will demonstrate to Ukraine and Moldova that they were right to put all eggs in the EU basket.
It will also help me and all parents of my generation in the region to keep the promise of the European dream to our children.