BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union sidestepped differences over recognizing Kosovo’s independence on Monday to pledge that the whole Western Balkans would one day join the bloc and vowed to guarantee stability in the region.
The four major EU powers — France, Germany, Britain and Italy — announced their intention to recognize the new state that seceded from Serbia on Sunday, but Spain and several other countries said they would not do so.
The 27 EU foreign ministers united behind a statement that left each member free to decide on recognition but authorized the European Commission to use EU funds and personnel “to promote economic and political development”.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters Berlin would decide to recognize Kosovo on Wednesday and altogether 17 EU states had vowed to respond quickly.
“The (EU) Council notes that member states will decide, in accordance with national practice and international law, on their relations with Kosovo,” the joint statement said.
The ministers said Kosovo was a unique case because of the bloody Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and did not set a precedent for other breakaway regions around the world or call into question international legal principles.
Within an hour of the EU statement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States, which had pushed the Europeans for an early settlement, was recognizing Kosovo.
Spain, grappling with its own Basque and Catalan separatist movements, vowed not to recognize the new state, but helped clinch a compromise in the EU by reaffirming the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said that to be legal, secession required either the agreement of both parties or a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Neighboring Montenegro, which has a sizeable Serb minority, would recognize Kosovo “at the moment when we assess it will not jeopardize our national security”, its Foreign Minister Milan Rocen, who was in Brussels for separate talks, told reporters.
The EU already took a key decision to help secure Kosovo’s future at the weekend by launching a 2,000-strong police, justice and civil administration mission.
The EU mission, to be headed by a high representative, will be fully deployed by June and will oversee training and institution-building, with limited rights to intervene to fight organized crime and corruption or hunt war criminals.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a former U.N. administrator in Kosovo, said President Nicolas Sarkozy had written a letter of recognition which would be sent to the president of the new state on Monday.
“It’s the end of a very long crisis and a period of great tension in this region of the world ... I hope it is over and reconciliation can start now, even though I know it will take a long time,” Kouchner told a news conference.
Announcing British recognition, Foreign Secretary David Miliband called Kosovo “the last piece of the Yugoslav jigsaw” and said stability in the Western Balkans could not be assured without respecting the aspirations of the Kosovan people.
Slovenia, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, played down differences over recognition.
“The European Union has once again survived this test of unity,” Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel told a news conference.
Apart from Spain, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania — which all have concerns about the legal precedent or minority rights — also said they would not recognize the secession.
NATO said in a statement its 17,000-strong KFOR stabilization force would “respond resolutely to any attempts to disrupt the safety and security of the population of Kosovo”.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom)
Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Richard Williams