By Hugh Williamson in Berlin and Daniel Dombey in London
Kosovo, the breakaway Serb province at the heart of a 1999 war, will be the biggest foreign policy issue for the incoming German presidency of the European Union, according to diplomats and analysts in Berlin.
But German foreign ministry officials add that their six months chairing EU meetings, which begin on January 1, could also be overshadowed by disputes over Turkey's EU bid, Iran's nuclear programme and continuing tensions in the Middle East.
One of Germany's top diplomats confirmed last week that making progress on Kosovo would be Berlin's top priority, in comments welcomed on Monday by foreign policy analysts.
Speaking at a conference in Berlin, Michael Schaefer, the foreign ministry's political director and a key aide to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, foreign minister, said that the Kosovo issue "would be the most urgent and difficult foreign policy question during our EU presidency".
The chief forum for the dispute is the United Nations Security Council, where western countries that believe Kosovo should be put on the path to independence will seek to win round a sceptical Moscow.
The EU's role is also important, as the prospect of closer ties between Serbia and Brussels is seen as the chief means of western leverage over Belgrade, and the EU is also preparing a large mission to assist with police training in Kosovo. At present, however, relations between the EU and Serbia are tense because of an impasse over Belgrade's failure to locate Ratko Mladic, an indicted war criminal.
"Germany is seen by both the Serbs and Albanians as an honest broker in the region" said Dušan Reljić, Balkans expert at Berlin's SWP foreign policy think-tank. He added that Washington and Moscow would also support Germany's intervention as "they both trust Berlin to know what it is doing in the Balkans".
Some EU officials caution that Russia, a traditional supporter of Serbia, will be much harder to win round than it was during the Kosovo war's resolution in 1999, when Moscow was much less self confident than it is today.
Mr Schaefer said that the German presidency of the EU would work quickly with proposals on the future status of the disputed province once they are made in late January by Martti Ahtisarri, the United Nations' special envoy on Kosovo. But he warned that Berlin's planned mediation efforts "would not tolerate delaying tactics from one side or the other".
He added: "We need a solution (on Kosovo) that is objectively fair to both sides", referring to the stand-off between the government of Serbia and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders.
Germany also wants to revitalize the international "Quartet" on middle east peace, which is made up of the US, Russia, the United Nation and the EU, that has recently played a marginal role. In addition, it wants to focus EU attention to the east of the bloc - on Russia, the countries on the eastern fringes of Europe and Central Asia.
But German officials acknowledge the difficulty of forging a common EU stance on Russia - the EU has still failed to agree a negotiating mandate for a wide ranging new agreement with Moscow. They also are worried that an EU summit next week may fail to resolve a dispute over Turkey and Cyprus, leaving the German presidency the burden of dealing with Ankara's faltering bid for EU membership. And many diplomats are worried that the controversy over Iran's nuclear programme may become more tense next year if Tehran speeds up its plans.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006