European Union officials hoped to sign a key EU pre-membership deal with Serbia as early as Tuesday, after receiving positive signals from its staunchest opponent, the Netherlands, dpa reported.
"The Netherlands and Belgium have been very flexible and put forward several proposals, because we want to give the Serb people a signal that we care about them and that their future is in Europe," Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.
"Since we are very flexible, it is up to our partners to arrive at a common position," he added.
Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU and was chairing the council meeting, sounded a positive note by saying ministers were "working towards a signature today."
Such optimism was shared by Vuk Jeremic, the Serbian foreign minister, who was in Luxembourg in case he was asked to sign the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), a text paving the way for eventual EU membership talks.
"I think there's reasonable grounds for being optimistic when it comes to the signing of the SAA," Jeremic said.
"What is really politically important is what are going to be the conclusions of the council and whether or not there is going to be clear confirmation that there is a European future for Serbia," he added.
Prior to Tuesday's meeting, the Netherlands and Belgium had strongly opposed the signature of the SAA with Serbia, insisting that Belgrade must first show that it is cooperating fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
This means handing over all remaining war-crimes suspects, most notably Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian-Serb general indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity to the ICTY.
Ministers meeting in Luxembourg planned to work on a compromise solution that would involve Serbia's SAA not coming into effect until its full cooperation with the ICTY was proven.
"They have to assist the (ICTY's) chief prosecutor and the hunt for Mladic has to go on until he is on the plane for The Hague," Verhagen said.
Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, said he believed it possible "for the differences to be overcome" in Luxembourg.
"You can never be 100-per-cent certain, but the mood music is pretty strong and I am optimistic that there will be a signing today," added Britain's minister for of state for Europe, Jim Murphy, whose country strongly supports the signing of Serbia's SAA.
EU officials hope that the prompt signing of the SAA might give Serbian President Boris Tadic, Jeremic and other pro-European forces that are campaigning for the country's May 11 parliamentary elections an edge over its nationalist parties.
"We have to show that our hearts are open to welcoming Serbia," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Hasselborn said ahead of the meeting.
"If we sign (the SAA) after the election, the positive EU signals for the pro-European forces in Serbia will not have the same value," he added.
EU ministers were also expected to offer the signing of an SAA to Bosnia-Herzegovina, following the country's agreement to reform its police, as requested by Brussels.
However, the actual signature was not expected to take place before the text was translated into all 23 EU languages.