BRUSSELS, April 12 (Reuters) - The EU must continue to hold out the prospect of membership for western Balkan states if efforts to resolve Kosovo's status are to succeed, the United Nations mediator for the disputed territory said on Wednesday.
Speaking after talks with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, U.N. Special Representative Martti Ahtisaari played down suggestions that talks between Serbia and Kosovo he is brokering on the future of the breakaway Serbian province had run into trouble.
"Perhaps the most important support I can receive from the EU is that member states keep the European perspective in sight, not only for Kosovo, but also for Serbia and the rest of the Western Balkans," he told a joint news conference.
"That is an important incentive."
Negotiations on Kosovo's future in Vienna appeared to falter last week over demands for autonomy for the Serb minority within the majority Albanian territory.
The former Finnish president said such differences were nothing unusual at this stage of a negotiation. "I don't accept that there hasn't been overall progress in the talks," he said.
Diplomats say independence is almost inevitable for Kosovo, seven years after NATO drove out Serbian forces, leaving a virtually self-governing territory under U.N. control. Belgrade has refused to give up the idea of creating a Serb "entity" within Kosovo, something the United Nations has ruled out.
Ahtisaari said talks on practical issues, like municipal governance, preserving Kosovo's cultural and religious heritage and economic cooperation, would continue into May or June.
He would then hold discussions with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Security Council, after which the most sensitive issue of the future status of Kosovo would have to be negotiated between Serbia and Kosovo Albanians.
Barroso and Rehn backed his approach. "If Europeans really want President Ahtisaari to succeed in bringing a sustainable settlement in Kosovo ... then let's stick to the European perspective and not wobble on this issue," Rehn said.
Barroso said the EU executive believed it was time for all parties involved to make "serious compromises".
While there was some discussion among member states as to how far EU enlargement should go, he noted they had unanimously agreed to give candidate status to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia last December.
Barroso said more should be done to tell ordinary people in the Balkans they had a European future.
He would not be drawn on independence for Kosovo, which Britain and the United States have said is almost inevitable.
The Commission chief said the EU sought "a democratic, stable, truly multi-ethnic Kosovo", but added: "We are not anticipating the outcome of those talks."
Whatever the decision on status, Ahtisaari said, it was crucial to ensure a safe future for minorities now, and not postpone the protection of minority rights until final status was agreed.
He rejected Belgrade's call for the two issues to be discussed in parallel and urged Serbia to reconsider its call for Kosovo Serbs to sever links with Pristina.
"It's a very old and worn slogan that you need two to tango. It's miserable to dance the tango all alone," he said.