The stabilisation and association process (SAP) is the framework for EU negotiations with the Western Balkan countries, all the way to their eventual accession. It has three aims: stabilising the countries and encouraging their swift transition to a market economy; promoting regional cooperation; and eventual membership of the EU. The SAP has high political value. It is based on the gradual implementation of a free trade area and reforms designed to achieve the adoption of EU standards with the aim of moving closer to the EU. Each country moves step by step towards EU membership as it fulfils its commitments in the stabilisation and association process, as assessed in annual progress reports of the Commission.
In general, the Balkan countries face a number of challenges if they are to sustain a closer relationship with the EU: ensuring the proper functioning of democratic institutions; upholding the rule of law; strengthening their administrative capacity and ability to implement and enforce legislation and reforms; making further efforts to achieve reconciliation in the region; fighting more vigorously organised crime and corruption in the region; improving the business climate and the competitiveness of their industries.
The European Union assists the Balkan countries in their progressive alignment with its standards and policies, including where appropriate the acquis communautaire, with a view to membership. Rigorous but fair conditionality is applied to all candidate and potential candidate countries. Every step forward depends on each country’s own progress in meeting the necessary conditions at each stage of the accession process. This approach helps to consolidate reforms and to prepare the Balkan countries to fulfil their obligations upon their eventual accession. Indeed, the European perspective provides a powerful incentive for political and economic reform in the region and encourages reconciliation among its peoples.
As seen in the previous section, the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA II) is the Union's financial instrument for the period 2014/2020 that assists the Balkan countries [Regulation 231/2014, implemented by Regulation 447/2014]. The instrument aims, inter alia, at strengthening of the ability of the beneficiaries at all levels to fulfil the obligations stemming from Union membership by supporting progressive alignment with, and adoption, implementation and enforcement of, the Union acquis, including preparation for management of Union Structural Funds, the Cohesion Fund and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.
The Thessaloniki European Council (19-20 June 2003) reiterated its determination to fully and effectively support the European perspective of the western Balkan countries, which would become an integral part of the EU, once they met the established criteria. The Thessaloniki agenda enhanced the stabilisation and association process with elements from the enlargement process (twinning, allowing participation in selected European programmes, European partnerships, strengthening of political dialogue and cooperation in the area of common foreign and security policy). The EU’s objective is to promote stability, security and prosperity in the Western Balkans through the region’s progressive integration into the European mainstream.
The Thessaloniki European Council endorsed, in particular, the introduction of the Partnerships as a means of materialising the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries within the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Process [Regulation 533/2004]. Croatia (until the 1st July 2013) and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, benefit (along with Turkey) from an accession partnership, which takes into account their special status as candidate countries [see section 25.2]. European partnerships concerning potential candidate countries provide a framework covering the priorities resulting from the analysis of the partners' different situations, the preparations for further integration into the European Union and the progress made in implementing the stabilisation and association process, including stabilisation agreements.
The Council set out the principles, priorities and conditions to be contained in the respective European partnerships with, respectively, Albania [Decision 2008/210], Bosnia and Herzegovina [Decision 2008/211 and Regulation 594/2008]; Serbia, including Kosovo [Decision 2008/213]; and the Republic of Montenegro [Decision 2010/224 and Agreement]. These European Partnerships define the priorities on which the Western Balkan countries should concentrate in the short and medium term. While the EU is ready to provide all support possible, advancement in the process of European integration in the region depends primarily on each country's own commitment and capability to carry out political and economic reform and adhere to the core values and principles of the Union asserted by the Copenhagen European Council [see section 25.2]. In any case, all these countries may participate in European programmes [Framework Agreements and Decisions 2005/524, 2005/525, 2005/526, 2005/527, 2005/528]. A stabilisation and association agreement was concluded between the EU and the Republic of Serbia, excluding Kosovo.
The region as a whole is gradually being associated with key European policies such as trade, justice, freedom and security, transport, energy and cross-border cooperation. Cooperation with Western Balkan countries in the areas of education and research has been significant in recent years, with a substantial Commission contribution under several programmes: Tempus (higher education), Erasmus Mundus (scholarships for students), Youth, the Research Framework programme and Joint Research Centre (JRC) activities, as well as through the work of the European Training Foundation (ETF). On 25 October 2005, the EU and eight Balkan countries signed the Energy Community Treaty in order to create the legal framework for an integrated energy market [Treaty and Decision 2005/905, see section 19.1.2].
Progress in the area of Justice, Freedom and Security has been significant and includes action to combat organised crime, building up institutional capacity in the judiciaries, improved police and prosecutor cooperation, an Action Plan for drugs trafficking, measures for combating money laundering and illegal migration. The EU supports the effective implementation of the mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) [Common position 2004/293, last amended by Common position 2009/164]. A military operation under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in Bosnia and Herzegovina called ''Althea'' (which took over from the NATO-led operation SFOR) aims to provide deterrence, ensure continued compliance with the general framework agreement for peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and contribute to a climate of safety and security in the country [Joint Action 2004/570 and Decision 2004/803]. The European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX Kosovo) assists the Kosovo institutions, judicial authorities and law enforcement agencies in their progress towards sustainability and accountability [Joint Action 2008/124].