BRUSSELS European Union leaders agreed on Friday to send administrators and police to Kosovo ahead of an expected declaration of independence from Serbia.
In a bid to soothe Balkan tensions over Kosovo's push for independence, they also offered Serbia a fast-track route to joining the bloc once it met conditions for signing a first-level agreement on closer ties.
But Belgrade bristled at suggestions that the move was designed to compensate it for the looming loss of Kosovo, the majority Albanian province. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said any such trade-off would be "an indecent proposal".
EU leaders declared after a one-day summit that negotiations on Kosovo's future were exhausted, the status quo was untenable and there was a need to move towards a Kosovo settlement. They stopped short of endorsing independence.
"We took a political decision to send an ESDP mission to Kosovo. This is the clearest signal the EU could possibly give that Europe intends to lead on Kosovo and the future of the region," Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, the summit chairman, told a news conference.
ESDP is the European Security and Defence Policy. The 1,800-strong mission involves police, justice officials and civilian administrators.
But when asked whether and when the EU would recognize Kosovo's independence, Socrates said talks on that issue were taking place at the United Nations.
"The EU is not forgetting its responsibilities in this area. We are talking in terms of action and not inaction," he said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters the EU had "a difficulty with Kosovo, which everybody can see will be independent".
Diplomats said Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia and Romania all object to recognizing Kosovo's sovereignty without a U.N. Security Council resolution.
"ON A PLANE"?
A day after signing a treaty to end a long institutional stalemate, EU leaders switched focus to challenges posed by the Balkans -- a test of the EU's hopes of strengthening its foreign policy clout -- and by globalization and immigration.
On Serbia's bid to join the 27-nation bloc, the final summit communique said: "(The European Council) reiterated its confidence that progress on the road towards the EU, including candidate status, can be accelerated."
Pro-EU moderates in Belgrade want EU candidate status by the end of next year, a timeframe EU Enlargement Commission Olli Rehn said last month was ambitious but feasible.
Normally, it takes up to two years for Brussels to grant candidate status to an aspirant after signing a Stabilisation and Accession Agreement (SAA), the first rung on the EU ladder.
The signing of an SAA with Belgrade has been held up by its failure to transfer Bosnian Serb wartime general Ratko Mladic to a U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Hague on genocide charges.
Outgoing chief war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte urged EU leaders in Belgium's Le Soir not to be lenient on Belgrade and to maintain firm pressure on it to deliver indictees.
"I am stupefied by the attitude of France, Germany and Italy who want to soften their position. As decisions must be taken by unanimity, I am counting on Belgium and the Netherlands to remain tough," she told the newspaper.
Signing the agreement requires unanimity in the EU and Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen told reporters: "I want Mladic on a plane to the Hague before I will sign the SAA."
Separately, EU leaders named former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez to head a new "reflection group" to discuss the long-term future of the EU on issues ranging from enlargement to climate change and regional stability, diplomats said.
Ex-Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and the chairman of mobile phone company Nokia Jorma Ollila were named as two vice-chairs of the panel due to report in June 2010, they said.
In addition to foreign policy issues, the leaders addressed public concern over the strain on European job markets from immigration and cheap imports, issues on which the EU hopes to focus now that the new Lisbon Treaty has been inked.
Replacing the more ambitious constitution abandoned after French and Dutch voters rejected it in 2005, the Lisbon Treaty preserves most of the key institutional reforms but drops contentious symbols of statehood such as a flag and anthem.
EU leaders hope the treaty will streamline the bloc's structures to cope with enlargement after it opened its doors to 12 mostly ex-communist states in 2004 and 2007. Critics say it will curb national sovereignty and put more power in Brussels.