The European Union agreed Monday to review in detail Serbia's request to join the bloc, an application that is warmly endorsed by Washington but that divides EU members.
Serbia's membership request has been gathering dust since it was filed Dec. 22, 2009, as the EU struggled with a decision on a candidate nation that was party to several wars during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
The Monday decision by the EU foreign ministers to send Serbia's application to the European Commission _ the executive arm of the European Union _ for a review, brings this Balkan nation closer to one day becoming an EU member.
EU foreign ministers, however, said Serbia's entry would ultimately be determined by whether it makes an effort to arrest Ratko Mladic, an ethnic Serb wanted by a U.N. tribunal for alleged war crimes in neighboring Bosnia, that include the murder of 8,000 men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.
The decision to process Serbia's application was hailed in Belgrade, which wants to join the bloc by 2014 or 2015.
Serbia's Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac said, his country's "road to Europe is now unstoppable."
In the margins of the Luxembourg meeting, Bozidar Djelic, Serbia's European affairs minister, pledged his government "will do everything in its capacity to find and extradite" Mladic and another fugitive.
"We believe it is a core element of the reconciliation in the region," he added.
But in a sign of possible obstacles ahead, the Netherlands said Belgrade must convince all 27 EU members that it is cooperating fully with the U.N.'s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal to bring Mladic to justice.
Serge Brammertz, the tribunal's prosecutor, said last June he has seen no real progress in the hunt for Mladic who has remained at large since 1995 while another former fugitive, ex-Bosnian Serb strongman Radovan Karadzic, has been captured and is now on trial.
Mladic touches a raw nerve in the Netherlands since the Srebrenica massacre _ the worst wartime atrocity in Europe since the Second World War _ was committed while 400 Dutch UN peacekeepers were stationed in the area.
For a country to become an EU member all 27 member states have to agree on it.
Stefan Fuele, the EU enlargement commissioner said Serbia must also enact reforms, notably in justice matters and advance good neighborly relations and regional cooperation.
"Serbia made already a number of important steps towards its neighbors. We hope to see it engage constructively in the dialogue with Kosovo," Fuele said.
This month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Serbia the country should be rewarded for its willingness to open talks with Kosovo, the former Serbian province which declared independence in 2008.
Within the EU, notably Italy, Slovenia, Sweden and Germany oppose the Dutch hard line against Belgrade fearing that delays in Serbia's EU path erodes the stability of its pro-Western government.
Serbia's government, who says it won't recognize Kosovo's independence, faces pressure from nationalists to drop its EU membership goal. The nationalists claim Serbia must never give up Kosovo and that opening talks with Pristina means de-facto recognition of its independence under Western pressure.
Associated Press Writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this story from Belgrade, Serbia.