BRUSSELS, Dec 12 (Reuters) - European Union leaders will emerge from Friday's summit without agreement on the future of Kosovo -- but nobody will be sounding the alarm bell just yet.
For despite the fact that "unity" has become the mantra of those heading European diplomacy on the breakaway Serb province, many believe full accord among the bloc's 27 states is not achievable or even needed to handle the dicey few months ahead.
Instead, the key will be how Kosovo's backers play Brussels' decision-making processes to deliver pledges of an EU security force and financial support even as a handful of doubting nations voice concerns over independence.
"Unity with flexibility is the buzzword now," said one diplomat of the approach being taken to proceed with what Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt this week called the EU's "virtual unity" on Kosovo.
With an independence declaration seen only weeks away, all want to avoid a repeat of the 1990s when hopelessly divided European capitals wrung their hands as the Balkans plunged into wars ended only by U.S.-backed NATO intervention.
An outright split on Kosovo at the summit would be all the more embarrassing given that it comes a day after EU leaders sign a new reform treaty in Lisbon hailed as giving the group stronger leadership and a more robust common foreign policy.
Leaders are set to issue a statement on Friday noting that efforts to reach a compromise between Pristina and Belgrade have been exhausted, but omitting reference to the vexed question of independence recognition, according to a draft seen by Reuters.
While EU foreign policy normally requires unanimity, Kosovo supporters will immediately set to work preparing a 1,600-plus police and justice mission that will be the most visible sign of EU determination to act.
They are cautiously confident they can employ a little-used EU mechanism known as "constructive abstention" that allows a nation to duck a decision on any EU foreign or security matter on which it has reservations.
That could help Cyprus, Spain, Slovakia and others -- wary of recognising Kosovo for fear of setting a precedent that could ultimately undermine their own territorial integrity -- to register their doubts while not actually blocking the mission.
"That will be the yardstick on which (EU) unity will be measured," French Secretary of State for Europe Jean-Pierre Jouyet told reporters this week of a mission which would be the most ambitious security operation in the EU's history.
EU financial aid for Kosovo -- crucial for kick-starting its moribund local economy -- can also be released without full unanimity because much of it is in the remit of the European Commission, the EU's powerful executive arm, diplomats note.
However there is no way round the recognition issue and EU officials are resigned to some EU capitals taking months to recognise an independent Kosovo -- if ever, in Cyprus' case.
"It was always understood there would be outliers," said Tomas Valasek of the London-based Centre for European Reform think tank, forecasting it would not be a problem unless major countries such as Spain refused to recognise it.
Yet the limitations of partial unity on Kosovo are clear.
Full accord would have bolstered European arguments against Russian and Serb assertions that a unilateral independence move by Kosovo is both illegal and sets a dangerous precedent.
And one day Kosovo will need the backing of all EU nations to begin the long climb towards eventual entry of the bloc.
"But that is not exactly time-critical at this stage," said one EU diplomat of a process likely to take many years.
EU officials acknowledge the strategy could unravel if Kosovo's ethnic Albanians break a pledge to coordinate with the EU and United States and rush into an early independence move.
"We would like to agree with them on how to go about it," Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country takes over the EU presidency from Jan. 1, told Reuters this week.
But acknowledging the complexity of Balkan diplomacy he added: "Of course, I am not in control of the situation." (Editing by Peter Millership)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.