EU leaders may postpone a decision on whether Serbia can become an official candidate for membership until their next summit in the spring, diplomats said Thursday.
The European Commission has recommended granting Serbia candidate status. But Germany is opposed, saying recent clashes at Kosovo's border between Serb nationalists and NATO troops showed that Serbia still wasn't ready.
While candidate status is symbolically and politically important for Serbia and its pro-EU president, Boris Tadic, it is just a step toward accession negotiations, which can drag on for years.
Tadic, who has staked his political future on moving Serbia closer to the EU, faces a tough election next year. His main opponents are nationalists who oppose EU membership and want instead to forge closer ties with Serbia's traditional ally, Russia.
The two diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks, said it was likely the leaders would decide to put off the decision on Serbia's status until the next scheduled summit, in March.
They also said Montenegro was likely to receive the green light to open accession negotiations in 2012. It became a candidate last year.
Meanwhile, Croatia _ another nation created by the breakup of the former Yugoslav federation in 1991 _ is scheduled to sign its accession treaty with the EU on Friday. It was granted candidate status in 2004 and has just concluded its accession negotiations.
Still, Croatia will have to wait until June 2013 become the 28th member of the EU, while the legislatures of all 27 current members first ratify the accession treaty.
On Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen suggested that Europe as a whole could benefit if the EU grants Serbia candidate status.
NATO still maintains about 5,500 troops serving as peacekeepers nearly 13 years after the brief war that expelled Serb forces from its mainly Albanian-populated province of Kosovo. Since then, Kosovo has declared its independence from Serbia, a move not recognized by Belgrade and part of the Serb minority in northern Kosovo.
Although the EU has not set recognition as a formal requirement for membership, it has insisted that the two governments ease tensions by normalizing their relations.
Since then, talks between the two sides have produced a number of agreements on joint border posts, and on practical matters such as recognizing each other's diplomas and land deeds.
But since this summer, clashes between Serb hardline nationalists and Kosovo police and NATO peacekeepers in northern Kosovo have resulted in dozens of injuries after security forces tried to remove trucks and buses blocking the road to the border crossings.