Senior European Union ministers have recommended that Serbia be accepted for membership-candidate status.
A final decision on granting such status to Belgrade is still required, but is now expected to come at an EU summit on March 1-2.
"I believe we are very close to having good news. A great majority of member states are in favor of granting Serbia candidate status," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said. "If this decision is not taken today, we expect it to be decided at the coming European Council. Indeed, it should be taken not later than the next European Council. Serbia deserves the candidate status."
The February 28 meeting of the General Affairs Council was contentious and the result fell short of the expected decision to grant membership-candidate status outright. The final decision was delayed because member Romania is calling for guarantees for Serbia's Romanian-speaking Vlach minority, some 30,000 strong.
Danish European Affairs Minister Nicolai Wammen, who represented the EU's rotating presidency at the meeting, described the talks as "difficult and tough."
"It will be no secret to anyone that the negotiations have been both difficult and tough today," Wammen said. "I'm pleased that we have been able to recommend candidate status for Serbia. Today, we have examined and confirmed that Serbia has lived up to the criteria set out in the European Council conclusions in December."
Serbian President Boris Tadic acknowledged the tensions but said Serbia had met all EU criteria for membership-candidacy status.
"We are talking about some problems existing between Serbia and some member states of the European Union," Tadic told reporters during the February 28 session. "Serbia is accepting all criteria that are in accordance with the Copenhagen Criteria. But Serbia is not going to accept something that is not in accordance with that criteria."
Candidate status would put Serbia on the path to formal accession negotiations with the EU -- although that process could last years.
Denmark's Wammen, however, was upbeat.
"Serbian membership of the EU will not be for tomorrow; there will be plenty of hard work ahead for Serbia," Wammen said. "But during my recent visit to Belgrade, I was impressed by the determination of President Tadic and his government to succeed in this European endeavor."
Based on Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa and other agency reporting