- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2012

BRUSSELS — EU foreign ministers will decide Tuesday whether Serbia should finally become a candidate for membership in the bloc, with influential officials saying signs looked good after the country reached a key agreement with its former province of Kosovo.

Serbian President Boris Tadic sounded a cautious note, describing himself as a “skeptical optimist,” and a handful of the country’s neighbors expressed opposition to the move.

Serbia had been widely expected to be made a formal EU candidate in December after it captured two top war crimes suspects, but was disappointed when Germany blocked its candidacy on the grounds that it wanted to see more progress in talks.

German Foreign Minister German Guido Westerwelle appeared optimistic Tuesday, saying he supported “a green light for Serbia’s candidacy.”

Kosovo, a former southern province of Serbia that came under international control after a 1999 war in which NATO forces ejected Serbian troops, declared independence in 2008. Serbia refuses to recognize it because it considers Kosovo the cradle of its statehood and religion.

The EU has not set recognition of Kosovo as a formal requirement for Serbia’s candidacy, but it insists Serbia establish “good-neighborly relations” with its former province.

An agreement reached last week allow Kosovo to represent itself in international conferences and spell out the technical details of how Serbia and Kosovo will manage their joint borders and border crossings.

But an official who could not be named under EU rules, said some countries, including Cyprus, Romania and Spain, remained opposed to a provision in last week’s accord between Serbia and Kosovo. This would allow the EU to launch a feasibility study for a pre-membership agreement for Kosovo — the first step in the new nation’s path toward eventual integration in the 27-nation bloc.

The three nations are among five EU member states that have refused to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.

Tadic said Romania, Serbia’s eastern neighbor, had raised objections during ministerial discussions to the status of the Vlach ethnic minority in eastern Serbia. Bucharest wants Belgrade to incorporate the Vlachs into the Romanian national minority in Serbia. But this is opposed by many of the Vlachs who don’t consider themselves to be of Romanian origin.

Tadic said Serbia could not force those people to join the Romanian national minority.

Associated Press reporter Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade.

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