BRUSSELS -- In a bid to break the deadlock between Serbia and Kosovo over the latter's status, the EU has offered to mediate talks between the two sides in Brussels.
Foreign ministers meeting in Brussels also backed a new list of sanctions against Iran to curb sensitive nuclear work, prompting Tehran to express regret and condemnation.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign policy, said on July 26 that she had asked both the Serbian and Kosovar governments to engage in direct dialogue as future members of the EU.
"What I've offered to Pristina and Belgrade, and I've spoken with both [Serbian] President [Boris] Tadic and [Kosovar] Prime Minister [Hashim] Thaci, is that the future of both lies in the European Union, and [that] there is a dialogue to be had between them to look at how we move forward into the future," Ashton said.
"That offer is on the table. I hope they will want to move forward and start discussions."
The EU has repeatedly said all western Balkan countries are guaranteed eventual membership.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on July 22
that Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008 did not violate international law. Kosovo welcomed the ruling, while Serbia once again vowed never to accept its erstwhile province's statehood.
The EU itself is split on Kosovo's status, with five member states -- Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia -- rejecting independence.
Ashton said the ICJ ruling had been "very clear" but did not elaborate whether any EU-mediated talks would address the status of Kosovo.
Ashton said that despite calls from the Austrian and Italian foreign ministers for the EU to expedite Serbia's membership prospects, there had been no discussion among the ministers about "speed or anything of that nature."
Serbia's membership application, tendered in December 2009, is held back by Belgrade's refusal to cooperate with the EU on Kosovo and its inability to arrest war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic.
Later the same day, Serbia's parliament backed a government move
seeking new talks on Kosovo at the United Nations after a 12-hour debate called in the wake of the UN court ruling.
The EU ministers also discussed Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the bloc hopes to foster cooperation among the leaders of the country's ethnic components by imposing stricter conditions on its aid.
Diplomats also say the bloc is considering travel bans and other sanctions against politicians seeking Bosnia's dismemberment.New Iran Sanctions
The EU also approved a new list of sanctions against Iran.
Ashton said after the meeting the new sanctions would specifically target Iran's nuclear program -- which the West believes has military aims.
"This package is robust, it's comprehensive. All the key areas, including energy, are included," Ashton said.
She said the new sanctions "go beyond" the UN Security Council's requirements, "but they follow the same logic. They target people, companies, and sectors directly and indirectly involved in Iran's nuclear programs in making, transporting, financing, and supporting those programs."
Ashton said the new sanctions were a "powerful message" to Tehran and one that was designed to persuade the country's leadership that its interests are best served by a return to "meaningful negotiations" with the international community.
Ashton cautiously welcomed the latest Iranian offer to return to talks, saying, however, that the EU currently had no more than the "bare bones" of the Iranian statement.
Then today, Iran's Foreign Ministry said that country "deeply regrets and condemns" the new EU sanctions.
The EU foreign-policy chief sidestepped questions on a possible Turkish role in mediating talks with Iran. Ashton noted, however, that the EU was keen to get Ankara to sign up to its sanctions so as to avoid a situation where Turkish companies could step into the breach left by EU businesses.
The EU ministers also endorsed a decision reached last month to extend the EU monitoring mission in Georgia by another year. However, diplomats in Brussels say the bloc is becoming "weary" of Georgia and that an increasing number of member states is looking to limit the EU's commitment to the country in the future.
Brussels officials say Ashton, who recently visited Georgia, told EU ambassadors last week she was unimpressed by President Mikheil Saakashvili's lack of "realism" in relations with either the EU or Russia.