Following the stabilisation of the security situation in the Western Balkans in the late 1990s, the European Union sought to find the best foreign policy strategy for developing political, trade and institutional relations with the countries of the region.
Since these countries were not covered by any other mechanism for institutionalisation of relations with the European Union, the need for long-term policies that would open up the EU membership perspectives for the Western Balkan countries has emerged.
This kind of European Union's policy towards the Western Balkans countries is known as the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP), launched in May 1999, on a proposal of the European Commission.
Given the apparent differences in security, political, economic and other contexts among individual countries, the stabilisation and association agreements, despite their identical basic structure, are precisely adapted to the political, economic and other circumstances in each individual country.
The SAP seeks to stabilise the region and establish a free-trade area with a view to these countries becoming EU members. Emphasis is placed on regional cooperation, and each country’s progress is judged on its own merits.
The key elements of the SAP are: contractual relationships (Stabilisation and Association Agreement), trade relations (autonomous trade measures), financial assistance (the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance - IPA), regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations.
There have been several key developments that have confirmed the importance of the SAP and the commitment by the European Union to supporting the Western Balkan countries on their EU path.
The Cologne European Council (3 and 4 June 1999) reaffirmed the EU's support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans and their full integration in the European Union on the basis of the Treaty on European Union and the fulfilment of the Copenhagen criteria (1993) and the Madrid criteria (1995).
Support for the Western Balkan countries on their path to the EU was reaffirmed at the European Council meeting in Santa Maria da Feira (19 and 20 June 2000), concluding that all countries participating in the Stabilisation and Association Process are potential candidates for EU membership, and that their fullest possible integration remains the objective of the EU.
Formal support for the SAP was given by the Heads of EU Member States and the countries covered by the SAP at the Zagreb summit (24. november 2000.).
The Thessaloniki summit (21 June 2003), enhanced the support and, for the first time, concretized it with the elements of the pre-accession strategy that had until then been open exclusively to candidate countries. The EU - Western Balkans Summit Declaration was adopted at the meeting endorsing the Thessaloniki agenda for the Western Balkans: Moving towards European Integration. By adopting the Declaration, all countries endorsed the content of the Thessaloniki Agenda and committed themselves to its implementation.
This document has introduced a whole series of new instruments and forms of cooperation between the EU and the SAP countries based on the experiences of previous rounds of enlargement (especially the fifth enlargement round) and a certain conditionality: European Partnership, cooperation under the Common Foreign and Security Policy, parliamentary cooperation, twinning and TAIEX Community programmes, increasing the CARDS budget towards the countries in the Stabilisation and Association Process and planning a new assistance instrument.
Main features of the SAP One of the main features of the SAP is equal conditions for all – The SAP countries must meet the same conditions including stable democratic institutions, the rule of law, respect and protection of human rights, respect and protection of minority rights, regional co-operation and building market economy. In addition, the Republic of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and FR Yugoslavia must fulfil the commitments received through the Dayton and Erdut Agreements, and the decisions of the Peace Implementation Council - PIC.
Another important feature is the clear perspective of the EU membership – The 2003 Thessaloniki summit clearly noted that the Western Balkan countries have a clear perspective of EU membership and underlined their intensive cooperation with the EU with the view to bringing them closer to the EU accession process. Through the Stabilisation and Association Process, the EU encourages the countries in the region as potential candidate countries to continue strengthening their relations in every field possible – from trade and investment, to infrastructure and return of refugees, to fight against organised crime.
The progress of each country participating in the SAP towards the European Union is assessed against its own success in meeting the commitments (individual approach), arising from the accession process. Failure by one country to meet these commitments does not affect the position of other countries.
Regional co-operation is in the focus of the SAP. In the SAP, cooperation with neighbours is of great importance for progress and the development of methods and practices that are integral to the EU membership. The Stabilisation and Association Process forms strong bonds between individual countries and the EU on the one side, and on the other encourages co-operation among SAP countries, as well as their co-operation with the neighbours.