By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - The European Union said on Tuesday it would consider sealing a cooperation pact with Kosovo as a first step on the long road to membership of the bloc, four years after the Balkan country declared independence.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said the bloc would assess Kosovo's readiness to begin negotiations on the pact, aimed at encouraging reforms ahead of the more arduous process of accession.
The step comes despite the fact the EU itself remains split on Kosovo, with only 22 of its 27 members recognizing the impoverished, majority-Albanian territory as independent.
Greece, Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus have so far refused to do so.
The Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) would unlock new funds to Kosovo to encourage reforms and development.
"This is the path followed by all of your neighbors and marks the beginning of a new stage in the European Union's relationship with Kosovo," Fule told reporters.
The EU operates a police and justice mission in Kosovo, where organized crime and corruption are rampant and ethnic tensions still flare into violence.
The territory became a ward of the United Nations in 1999 after NATO bombed for 11 weeks to halt the killing and expulsion of Albanian civilians by Serb forces fighting a two-year counter-insurgency war.
It declared independence over Serbian objections in 2008 and has been recognized by 89 countries including the United States.
The country of 1.7 million people is still years away from full EU membership, but Brussels hopes the pull of integration will encourage better governance, spur economic growth and calm ethnic tensions.
(Writing by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Matt Robinson and Karolina Tagaris)