The Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), which Serbia was invited to sign on Tuesday in Luxembourg, represents a major step towards European Union membership by the countries of the Western Balkans, reported dpa .
As its name suggests, it is designed to bring basic stability and prosperity to a region devastated by the conflict that erupted after the implosion of the former Yugoslavia.
As EU documents state, "the partnership between the EU and the Western Balkans is in the interest of all partners: peace, stability, freedom, security and justice, prosperity, quality of life, for the EU and the Western Balkan countries."
Devised in 1999 and approved a year later at a summit in Zagreb, the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP), of which each SAA is the key ingredient, helps aspiring EU candidates adapt to the strict standards that eventual membership would entail.
An SAA recipient must carry out an array of political, judicial and economic reforms designed to turn it into a modern free-market economy fit to join.
In return, the EU offers a series of benefits. These can include financial assistance, free trade deals and the relaxation of visa rules.
Each country moves forward on the basis of the fulfilment of its agreed commitments, with an annual progress report assessing the readiness of any Western Balkan country to move closer to joining the EU.
With the exception of Slovenia, which was already on the way to EU membership in 1999, all the countries of the Western Balkans have joined the SAA process.
Serbia initialled its SAA in November 2007, one month after Montenegro and one month before Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Albania signed its SAA in June 2006, but it is still waiting to become an official candidate country.
Croatia and Macedonia, which have both been granted candidate country status, remain part of the SAA process.