A popular insurance company adds that it is playing on a father’s promise to his daughter to call him during a business trip. When he calls despite all imaginable challenges, he answers the joyful voice of his child on the other end: a promise is a promise.
Keeping your promises is as important in human relations as it is in politics and international relations.
In June 2003, exactly twenty years ago, at his Summit in Thessaloniki In Greece, European Union leaders made a promise to Western Balkan countries: “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union. » It was a hopeful period in European history. The biggest expansion of the European Union was underway, with ten countries joining a year later, as well as Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. The last country to do so was Croatia ten years ago years.
Since then, the promised European dream has been a common strategic goal for the nations of the Western Balkans. However, the political mood on the continent quickly changed and EU enlargement ran out of steam.
First, efforts to consolidate the European project through the adoption of a European Constitution were abandoned after its rejection by French and Dutch voters. Then came the European debt crisis, followed by the migration crisis, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. Democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland has deepened enlargement fatigue and raised doubts in some old member states about the benefits of further expansion.
To be fair, the Western Balkan countries haven’t really helped their cause either. The weariness of expanding the promised land was met with a weariness of reforms on the part of the candidates. While the transposition of European norms and standards into national legislation is progressing at a constant pace, party clientelist politics and endemic corruption have weakened the democratic institutions of countries in the region classified in the gray zone between democracy and autocracy by Liberty House.
Occasional democratic initiatives in one or another Western Balkan country, rather than being adopted, have been discouraged by vetoes by some member states or met with the disposal of a bureaucrat tasked with making excuses to explain why no progress is possible.
With simply too little to show for two decades after the promise of Thessaloniki, it is no wonder that the European dream looks more and more like a road to nowhere. This in turn is echoed by the Russian discourse: “the West cannot be trusted and will never be up to the task”.
It is difficult to find a better test for the EU’s credibility and commitment in the Balkans than the case of North Macedonia, a country emblematic for its unfair treatment in this process. After avoiding the wars in the former Yugoslavia, she began her worrying journey to Croatia. A baby born when the country obtained candidate status will come of age this year. In 2009, after a record waiting time, the European Commission recommended the start of accession negotiations. Until now, Member States have always followed these recommendations and negotiations have been opened. Not in this case. Not at that time, nor after eleven such recommendations.
The reason for the loss of generations is not the lack of reforms. It was the name dispute with Greece. In 2018, I signed the Prespa Agreement solve this seemingly intractable problem. The breakthrough was rented as a remarkable success of the democratic world, and European leaders rushed to Skopje to promise Macedonian citizens the start of the long-awaited accession negotiations.
However, the historic opportunity was missed. The EU has failed to deliver on its promise, causing waves of disappointment and disillusionment across the region. Momentum was lost because France first demanded a change in the methodology of the accession process. With this work accomplished, Bulgaria moved from champion to greatest obstacle, holding enlargement hostage to revisionist claims about Macedonian history, identity and language.
Faced with large-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine and Ukraine’s application for EU membership, the club made another promise, giving the candidacy of Ukrainians and Moldova. Europe is indeed the object of this war, and not only because it is taking place on European soil. It was Europe’s soft power that inspired Ukraine and, in turn, worried Putin to the point of occupying Crimea and Donbass before launching the all-out invasion.
It is often wrongly said that Putin’s brutal attack changed everything. This is not true. What changed everything was the determination and heroic fight of Ukrainians for their freedom and democracy, for their right to choose their own destiny. They want to be equal members of the European family and have taken the words of European leaders very seriously.
At this pivotal time for the continent, in a fiercely contested world, the EU must once again think big, act strategically and start delivering on its promises, also for its own sake. Relaunching the integration of the countries of the Western Balkans, a region encircled by member states, will close pockets of instability that can be fueled by the Kremlin and demonstrate to Ukraine and Moldova that they were right to put all the eggs in the EU basket. .
It will also help me, and all parents of my generation in the region, to fulfill the promise of the European dream to our children.