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Marcus Tanner: It's largely about appearing to be willing, but it's a start

With its right to statehood contested, Kosovo needs to maintain the diplomatic goodwill of the Europeans and the US

Only a few years ago, the thought of such arch-enemies as the Serbian government and the former leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army sitting around the same table would have seemed laughable. Of all the Balkan disputes, the Serbian-Albanian wrangle over Kosovo has long been the most intractable. By the time Serbian forces withdrew in 1999, forced out by Nato air strikes, at least 10,000 people were dead.

So the fact that the two sides at least appear willing to talk is a breakthrough in itself and a feather in the cap of the EU, the moving force behind this initiative.

Europe is, indeed, what it's all about. Serbia's EU prospects are advancing faster than was once expected and its centrist government is keen to obtain candidate status this year before heading into a difficult election in 2012 with the revived nationalist opposition.

Brussels is happy to encourage Serbia, but has made clear that it will never repeat the error that it made in admitting Cyprus – allowing in a state that has serious outstanding disputes with its neighbours, to which the whole of the EU then finds itself held hostage. Serbia, therefore, has to appear ready to talk to the Kosovars if its EU application process is not to come to a halt. The Albanian-led government of Kosovo is under even more pressure to show flexibility. Unlike Serbia, it is in no position to dream of EU membership. But it is dependent on EU subsidies and with its right to statehood contested around the world, Kosovo needs to maintain the diplomatic goodwill of both Europe and the US, whose military was decisive in securing its independence.

The Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, is also the subject of a recent hostile report by a Council of Europe rapporteur, which accused him of running a crime ring that trafficked in human organs in the 1990s. Now is not the right time for him to be looking obdurate.

The question is whether Europe can get the two sides to do more than sit around a table. Movement on missing persons from the war in the 1990s and on trade will be high on the agenda.

Right now, Serbia is blocking passage through its territory of anything labelled "Republic of Kosovo", insisting that no such state exists. It is also resisting Kosovo's admission to international organisations.

If progress is made here, it will be an encouraging start.