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Understanding the Stabilisation and Association Process

What is the Stabilisation and Association Process?

The Stabilisation and Association Process is the main strategy of the EU towards the five Western Balkan countries. This rather complicated term is in reality the same strategy which was applied to the Central and Eastern European countries which have joined the EU in 2004. According to the Commission experts, the process designed for the Western Balkans has two specificities: the “stabilisation” component, and a reinforced regional cooperation dimension.

In June 1999, the wars in Ex-Yugoslavia were coming to an end. The Heads of State and Governments of the EU decided in June 1999 to replace the existing instrument called “Regional Approach” by the “Stabilisation and Association Process” which was, according to the EU, a more ambitious policy as it was meant to bring the countries on the way to European integration. In the beginning, it was necessary to stress the stabilisation element, because the countries emerged from conflict. For the same reason, it was important to encourage more cooperation among the countries of the region, simply because regional cooperation is one of the main building blocks of the EU.

An important step was achieved at the Thessaloniki Summit in June 2003, when the EU confirmed the perspective for the Western Balkans to join the EU one day.

The European Partnerships
A series of new instruments were introduced, of which the most important are the European Partnerships
, once again inspired directly from the Accession Partnerships which helped the Central and Eastern European Countries in their process of joining the EU. The Accession Partnership is a bilateral agreement between the EU and a country of the Western Balkans, through which the European Commission, mandated by the EU Member States, analyses the progress of reforms undertaken by each country individually. The Commission makes recommendations in the short, medium and long term. It gives the country a sort of “Road Map” to follow. The European Partnerships were introduced in 2004, and the European Commission is to publish its evaluation of reforms every year in the autumn.

The “Stabilisation” element
The Stabilisation element allowed the EU to create instruments which would help the reconstruction in the Western Balkans. Among these instruments: the European Agency for Reconstruction which is active in Serbia and Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia. The Stabilisation elements also allowed the EU to intervene actively in the conflict resolution in Macedonia in 2001, by bringing together the leaders of the country’s political parties.

The “Regional Cooperation” element
The regional cooperation is a key element of the contract the EU concludes with each country. The Stabilisation and Association Agreements include an important regional dimension, which is designed to encourage the countries of the region to develop good neighbourly relations, comparable to the relations between the Member States of the European Union. One cannot have enemies in its immediate neighbourhood, and pretend to develop good relations with geographically more remote countries. With time, the regional cooperation has been put into practice in different fields, and the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe has played a significant role in this regard.

Free Trade
Today, the countries of the Western Balkans have signed 31 free trade agreements among themselves. These will probably be merged into one single free trade agreements which will ultimately end up in a free trade zone, as encouraged by the European Commission in its latest communication. During the first official visit to the region of Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, this free trade zone has been promoted.

Regional Energy Market
With the support of the EU, cooperation among Western Balkan countries becomes a reality in the crucial field of energy. A Treaty creating a Regional Energy Market, connected to the EU, has been signed in November 2005 in Athens.

Fight against crime
The countries of the region cooperate more and more actively in the field of « Justice and Home Affairs », for example in fighting organised crime. A common approach is necessary to fight organised crime and trafficking.

European Transport network
The countries of the region are gradually being integrated in the Transeuropean Transport networks.

All this should ultimately encourage foreign investment in the region.

As such, the Stabilisation and Association Process, from a concrete point of view, not only serves the purpose of bringing the Western Balkans closer to the EU, but also helps improve living conditions for the people in the region.

Each country at its own pace

Every country is at a different stage of the process. To date, Macedonia and Croatia are the only ones to have signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU. On this basis, Croatia has obtained candidate status and the EU has opened Accession negotiations with the country in October 2005.

Macedonia has obtained candidate status in December 05, but the EU Heads of State and Government have decided that the country is not sufficiently ready to open Accession negotiations.

With Serbia and Montenegro, the EU has opened negotiations for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement on 7 November 2005.

With Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU has opened negotiations for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement on 25 November 2005.

With Albania, the EU should conclude the negotiations for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement in the first six months of 2006.

After signature of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, there is a ratification process in the EU Member States which can last 2 to 3 years. In the mean time, the EU and the country in question sign an interim agreement which allow the commercial components of the agreement to enter into force, so that concrete implementation of the agreement can start.

Finances

The Stabilisation and Association Agreement foresees also the financial assistance, which until the end of this year 2006 will be the CARDS programme. In 2007, CARDS will be replaced by a new financial instrument called Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA). IPA will focus more specifically on in-depth institutional reform, which is necessary for each country wishing to be fully Euro-compatible.

In short, the Stabilisation and Association Process is the EU strategy to bring the Western Balkans to the stage when they are ready to become EU Members.