The European Union's ability to unite in pursuit of agreed foreign policy goals is often underrated in Britain, where failures are seized on and successes ignored or taken for granted. But the start this week in Brussels of the first face-to-face talks between Kosovo and Serbia is undoubtedly a triumph for EU "soft power". Neither side would normally wish to have anything to do with the other were it not for the EU's insistent diplomacy over the past few years. Quite simply, the shared desire of Serbs and Kosovar Albanians to join the European club overrides almost all other considerations – even those legendary Balkan hatreds.
Talks in Brussels will not solve overnight an ethnic and territorial dispute that dates back centuries. To most Serbs, Kosovo remains part of their ancestral, national patrimony and they are in no hurry now, or possibly at any stage, to recognise the former province's unilaterally declared independence. Resentment against Nato for its military intervention on the side of the Kosovo rebels in 1999 remains deep-seated, which is why most Serbs fiercely oppose any moves to join the North Atlantic alliance.
Kosovar Albanians, for their part, remain extremely bitter about Serbia's refusal to apologise for the 10,000 or so Albanians whom Serbian forces killed before Nato forced them to pull out.
The EU mediators are well aware of this background to the talks and will be trying to move forward on nuts-and-bolts questions rather than attempting to make headlines on the big questions of recognition and official apologies. One immediate obstacle that must be tackled is Serbia's economic blockade of its former province, a pointless act of spite, and its refusal to attend any regional forums to which Kosovo has also invited – high-handed behaviour that Kosovo's other neighbours find tiresome and disruptive.
If Brussels can achieve something in these fields, it will have done the whole region a service. The persistence of the Serb-Albanian dispute delays both sides' EU membership prospects and keeps the whole of the Balkans unnecessarily on edge.