Scenario 1: Forced Hand

4 March 2022


Russia and its proxies (i.e., Belarus) increase hybrid attacks and threats on the EU’s eastern borders while China continues to make inroads with large scale infrastructural investments, strengthening their presence on the continent. Wishing to thwart any further advancement, the EU begins speeding up the accession of the vulnerable Western Balkans. 

Forced Hand Variables

This scenario is grounded in the shared belief that the ultimate goal towards membership of the Western Balkans (WB) in the EU can be accomplished within the analysed time span. While the shared awareness of endless obstacles inhibits the scenario’s realisation, the goal remains a consistent catalyst for political action.

The shared reflection on the hopes and expectations driving this process provides important insights for fine-tuning the whole process. The second variable is determined by the need to introduce tangible economic reforms that will push the region out of economic stagnation. The membership perspective and the need for economic reform are mutually dependent and can both serve as pull factors.

Importance of Relevant Variables

Achieving membership in the EU is the most essential game-changer in the region. Hence, its high impact can hardly be doubted. More questionable is its high probability, which as the other scenarios highlight, does not necessarily have to occur. Simultaneously, this scenario should not be undermined, since it is the ultimate goal of the whole interaction between the EU and the Balkan countries and its denial practically stultifies the whole process.

The stagnated nature of the Western Balkan countries’ development over the last three decades requires a political reply to satisfy growing social discontent, to prevent the endless brain drain and resolve demographic challenges. Hence, political elites will have to face either radical economic reforms in pursuit of a Western Balkans model of economic development or adapt to the global supply chains with regard to the growing tensions between the West and its contestants. Countries seem more likely to pursue the latter.

Paradoxically, the obstacle for this process lies in the current political elites, accurately described by the concept of stabilitocracy. The challenge ahead is the unsatisfactory nature of the current stability, which on one hand serves its purpose as an EU outer rim, whereas from another, has become a source of endless frustration for the ordinary people and smouldering instability. By supporting ‘stabilocrats’ the EU risks losing credibility among some of its strongest supporters.

The overlapping of these two variables (joining the EU and the need for radical economic reforms) has the potential to trigger massive changes in the region and more importantly, each one can serve as a catalyst for the other.


The need for a change is noticeable across the region. The stabilitocracy paradigm is no longer feasible. The political endurance of local autocrats provides security at the expense of ordinary citizens and popular protests have become a permanent element of the political spectrum. For the EU, it becomes more and more difficult to explain the close interactions with politicians more often associated with corruption, political persecutions, romancing with China and Russia and inclining towards nationalism and dismantling rather than embracing Western values.

While the quest for democratic renewal is visible the ruling political elites reach out for nationalist narratives aiming at popular polarisation and rallying around the flag. Such a trend requires not only reassessment of the EU’s policy towards the national political elites but also sparks grass-root protests as the ghosts of nationalism lead to undesired conflicts and shared suffering. Ultimately, the EU model, regardless of all its weaknesses, remains the most attractive political option on the horizon.


The anticipated consequences of the Forced Hand scenario drive stakeholders and national imaginations. While in many areas the pre-enlargement high hopes do not necessarily meet the post-enlargement reality, the expected changes identify directions worth a more thorough approach.

Membership in the EU is associated with dynamic economic growth, and this is the predominant driver for rapprochement with the EU for most of the countries with lower than the EU average level of development. However, while all the new EU member states generally develop faster than the old EU member states, challenges remain. They concern both the pace and the nature of the catching up and do not relieve national political elites from the need for thoughtful exploitation of the advantages provided by the common market.

The EU has become a reconciliation role model that remains a beacon for the history-dominated national narratives of the Balkans (and not only). Indeed, the EU does serve as a platform for reconciliation, yet it is naïve to think that the EU and its top-down pressure will resolve identity questions or historical disputes. The EU was never vested with such competence, but rather it was a crucial trigger for economic rapprochement. The advantage of replacing historical and identity considerations with tangible economic entanglements driven by dry technocratic supranational regulations framed an alternative reality that coated the divisive narratives. The sense of belonging and uniqueness never disappeared within the member states, but the rational choice perception of the EU integration reshuffled the priorities and accents within the national political discourses.

Importantly, this was achieved not by a consciously steered remodelling of national identities to fit an EU standard but through the removal of obstacles for the enjoyment of shared spaces and dismantling prejudices. While there is still a long way within the EU itself on that matter, the integration constitutes a platform that offers a leeway for diffusing identity and historical concerns.

The perspective of EU membership sparks expectations way beyond the current EU tendencies. Whereas the economic development is noticeable in the current member states, high hopes should not be vested in the demand for reversing the negative demographic trends across the region. Conversely, as the ‘new’ EU member states experience shows, the membership has further deepened the demographic problems. For many employees, the free movement of people encouraged the brain drain towards the better-paid member states. Simultaneously, the EU funds for the ‘new’ member states and decreasing unemployment (due to the free movement of people) discourage national elites from furthering internal reforms for the improvement of health conditions, living standards and economic growth. Hence, the post-accession reality requires an even stronger commitment in order to appropriately exploit the advantage of the EU membership for the improvement of a country’s competitiveness, quality of life and demographic parameters.

Increased government accountability, consolidation of democracy and political stability are viewed as direct implications of EU membership at the national level. Whereas these perceptions are at the centre of the ongoing political struggle over the future of the European project, they indicate a demand for greater improvement of democratic standards nationally. The consolidation of democracy is a prerequisite for membership and not its consequence.

It is worth underlying that the membership in the EU petrifies the political system of the member state as it obtains additional EU legitimisation. In the post-membership environment, the national political elites are further discouraged from introducing more reforms since they have been de facto appreciated by the EU member states. The membership of states with a questionable understanding of democracy’s basic principles negatively impacts the process. However, despite the EU’s rule of law efforts, nation-states play a paramount role and the lessons from the last enlargements reveal that the joint institutions are not equipped to sufficiently impact the quality of democracy at the national level. In other words, democracy is formed, tested and applied at the national level and stakeholders at this level carry the primary responsibility for its quality.

The shared EU rules, regulations and institutions can identify cases of collision, breaches of EU’s acquis and incompatibility of domestic practises with the anticipated patterns of behaviour but the existence of working mechanisms of political and legal accountability belongs to the domestic political system.

The catching-up process should not be a Brussels-driven carrot and stick interaction with national elites but a conscious national choice. Opposition parties also share responsibility here. The membership should not be considered as adjustment but joining a form of cooperation that prioritises the mutual bonds vis-a-vis other players united in diversity.

Implications If the Forced Hand Scenario Is Realised

The fulfilment of this scenario will profoundly redefine the region. The influence of foreign players will decrease substantially, and their operations will have to adjust to the EU regulative framework. The engagement costs for non-EU countries will increase substantially. The new member states will obtain access to EU funds.

The membership will facilitate the complete application of the EU’s four freedoms thus diminishing the role of borders, state control and ability to steer people-to-people and economic relations in accordance with the national political leaders’ interests.

The EU will make another step in its historical mission to unite the continent and will diminish the impact of a plethora of identity and historical issues. Simultaneously, the citizens of the new member states will take advantage of the new economic and investment opportunities.

The new member states need to define clearly their membership priorities. As the previous enlargements show, the membership brings serious challenges such as brain drain, depopulation and an unsatisfactory pace of catching up with the EU average economic indicators. To prevent such tendencies, the countries have to strengthen the integrity of the political systems and provide comprehensive strategies exploiting the EU’s pros and mitigating the cons. They need to build institutions their citizens can trust.


Narrated by Spasimir Domaradzki.


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Thank you to the International Visegrad Fund and the National Endowment for Democracy for their support


Western Balkans Futures: Five Scenarios for 2030

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