European Union Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele says Serbia and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership have reached a deal on border issues and Kosovo's participation in Balkan regional meetings.
Fuele said the deal, announced on February 24 after talks in Brussels, is a major step forward ahead of a decision on whether to recognize Serbia as an EU candidate.
He said it "reinforces regional cooperation, good neighborly relations and the [EU's] enlargement agenda in the western Balkans." Diplomats say the deal was struck without Serbia recognizing the independence of Kosovo.
Belgrade accepted that its former province Kosovo should be able to participate in regional meetings in its own right, instead of being officially represented by the UN mission in Pristina.
Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said the deal with Serbia was "key" to the territory's EU and wider international integration. Thaci told a press conference that "today's agreement makes Kosovo a European Kosovo." He added that "the agreement is a key for the integration of Kosovo in the international community."
The agreement also deals with technical details of how Serbia and Kosovo will manage their joint borders and border crossings.
It has been reached following three days of EU-brokered talks in Brussels and sets the conditions for EU ministers next week to approve Serbia's bid to be recognized as an official candidate to the bloc.
As part of the agreement, the European Commission is proposing to launch a feasibility study on placing Kosovo on the path of EU membership -- a controversial issue because five of the EU's 27 members do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Greece, and Cyprus share Serbia's refusal to recognize Kosovo's independence.
Kosovo's representation in international meetings poses similar sovereignty and recognition problems.
In December, Belgrade failed to win candidate status because of opposition from several EU governments concerned over border tensions in restive northern Kosovo.
Germany was a major opponent to Serbia's EU bid, following incidents in northern Kosovo, which saw ethnic Serbs attacking German and Austrian NATO peacekeepers.
The final decision on Serbia's EU candidate status could be made at an EU summit on March 1 and 2.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton termed the move an important step for Kosovo. "These agreements are consistent with Kosovo’s independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty, and move Kosovo closer toward full European integration, which the United States continues to support," the statement said.
With AFP and Reuters reporting