By Mark John
Fri Sep 7, 6:14 PM ET
VIANA DO CASTELO, Portugal (Reuters) - European Union states will seek to maintain a common front over the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo on Saturday, amid growing concern that it will declare independence unilaterally.
Foreign ministers meeting in the Portuguese coastal town of Viana do Castelo will proclaim unity, aware that any split would wreck the bloc's credibility as a foreign policy player more than a decade after it failed to halt the 1990s Balkan wars.
Despite official determination, few expect last-ditch talks between Serbia and Kosovo's majority Albanians to reach a compromise by a deadline of December 10, after which Kosovo's leaders have threatened to declare independence regardless.
Britain and France are among those seen recognizing Kosovo's sovereignty, while Spain, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, Cyprus and Romania are reluctant, either because of their proximity to the Balkans or fears it could encourage separatists at home.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt also spoke out on Friday against recognizing a unilateral declaration of independence, highlighting the risk of a split after December 10.
"The unity of the European Union is of capital importance to us," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters on the first day of the two-day meeting.
Belgrade has said it could never accept independence for the province of two million people and has the backing of Russia, which holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council.
The EU demanded on Friday that Serbia clarify remarks by a junior minister that Belgrade could send troops into Kosovo to thwart Western recognition of its independence.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn called the reported comments by the secretary of state for Kosovo, Dusan Prorokovic, "highly unfortunate" and said he expected a clarification before Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica visits Brussels on Wednesday.
"It is not comprehensible that a country that is pleading for a negotiated settlement on the one hand, makes such threats of violence on the other hand which question its commitment to serious negotiations," Rehn told Reuters in an interview.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said there was still time to seek a compromise between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians and dismissed talk of an independence followed by partition for the small, Serb-dominated northern part of the province.
"Partition is not something that has been put on the table by any of the parties. I don't think we have to look into that today," he told reporters.