BRUSSELS, Belgium (CNN) -- European leaders agreed Friday to send an 1,800-strong security force to maintain stability in Kosovo, although they stopped short of backing independence for the province.
French soldiers at the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo last month.
Kosovo is expected to declare independence from Serbia early in the new year.
Serbia, however, insists the region should remain autonomous within its borders.
Speaking at the end of a one-day summit of European heads in Brussels, Jose Socrates, the Portuguese prime minister currently holding the European Union presidency, said that sending the security mission was a "political decision."
The police and security force is expected to be deployed to the Balkan state ahead of an announcement of independence.
"This is the clearest signal that the EU could possibly give that it intends to lead on the whole issue of Kosovo's future, its status and its role in the region," Socrates said.
According to CNN's Robin Oakley in Brussels, European leaders are trying to balance an obvious readiness to back Kosovan independence with incentives to Serbia, which is seeking membership of the EU.
EU leaders are deeply conscious of their failure in the early 1990s to move early enough to prevent the bloodletting in the Balkans over the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, he said.
Although most EU leaders support Serbia becoming a member state to boost stability in the Balkans, French President Nicholas Sarkozy said that Serbia's membership is dependent on it recognizing Kosovo's independence and handing over war criminals.
Socrates confirmed to CNN that any fast-tracking of Serbia into the EU could only be considered if it agreed to hand over Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general wanted at the The Hague for suspected war crimes.
Two years of negotiations on the future status of Kosovo ended in failure earlier this week, when talks mediated by Europe, the United States and Russia ended without an agreement.
The disputed province is dear to the Serbs, Orthodox Christians who regard it as Serbian territory. But it is equally coveted by Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, Muslims who have a 90 percent majority.
Since 1999 the United Nations has been running the province with NATO peacekeepers, who still number 16,000.
Oakley said the EU mission to Kosovo would help to ease the handover from the U.N. to local authorities. E-mail to a friend