Leaders of Serbia and Kosovo made progress in implementing an agreement on normalising their relations on Friday in talks seen as crucial to whether the European Union grants Serbia a date for opening membership talks, an EU official said.
Serbia agreed in April to cede its last remaining foothold in the country's former province of Kosovo, striking a historic accord to settle relations in exchange for talks on joining the European Union.
The April deal, brokered by the EU, capped six months of delicate negotiations and marked a milestone for the region's recovery from the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Following the deal, the EU's executive Commission encouraged EU governments to start membership talks with Serbia.
EU leaders are due to decide at a June 27-28 Brussels summit whether to set a firm date for talks to begin, possibly later in the year or early 2014. EU ministers meeting in Luxembourg next week may take a preliminary decision on setting a date.
But recently there has been concern in the EU over apparent foot-dragging in the implementation of the April accord and that could influence whether the bloc offers Serbia a date for starting the talks or postpones.
So EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton brought Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and his Kosovo counterpart, Hashim Thaci, together in Brussels for talks on Thursday night to try to iron out problems in implementing the accord.
In the next few days, Ashton and EU enlargement chief Stefan Fuele will send EU governments a letter telling them how far implementation has come, and that may influence their decision on whether to grant Serbia a start date for talks.
Ashton made clear in a statement released early on Friday that her verdict would be positive, saying "good work has been done and concrete progress has been achieved" in implementing the April agreement.
In their latest talks, Dacic and Thaci agreed on a number of open issues, particularly in the fields of justice, police and upcoming municipal elections, Ashton said.
"I will now inform the member states about the progress in the implementation of the April agreement, confirming that concrete steps towards a visible and sustainable improvement of relations between the two sides were taken," she said.
She said she was "looking forward to further progress in the process of normalisation of relations."
The April agreement outlined an end to the ethnic partition of Kosovo between its Albanian majority and a small, Belgrade-backed pocket of some 50,000 Serbs in the north.
The north Kosovo Serbs have threatened to resist integration with the rest of Kosovo, in a region bristling with weapons.
Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of their nation and Orthodox Christian faith, but Belgrade lost control over the territory in 1999 when NATO carried out 11 weeks of air strikes to halt the killing and expulsion of Albanian civilians by Serbian forces waging a counter-insurgency campaign.
Kosovo has since been recognised by more than 90 countries, including the United States and 22 of the EU's 27 members.
EU membership talks take years and Serbia is unlikely to join the bloc before 2020. But the negotiation process would help drive reforms in the largest country to emerge from federal Yugoslavia, luring investors to its ailing economy.
For Kosovo, agreement with Serbia means the EU is likely to start discussions on an association agreement, which can carry economic benefits.
Serbia and Kosovo exchanged envoys last Monday for the first time since the 1998-99 war. But Kosovo's envoy resigned two days later, pre-empting his dismissal for exceeding his powers and making remarks likely to irritate Belgrade.