Steinmeier said the 27 EU members were preparing for a decision on independence by the leaders of the breakaway Serbian republic.
"It does not take much fantasy to guess what the decision would be," Steinmeier said on Friday, Feb. 1, after talks in Berlin with his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt, a former EU mediator for Bosnia.
The civilian mission will number around 1,800 people, most of them police and justice experts, one diplomat told the AFP news agency. The launch of the mission, which requires unanimous support, could come quickly, depending on how events unfold in Kosovo and Serbia, where a second round run-off presidential election is taking place Sunday.
Bildt said it was necessary to maintain what he described as the "semi-consensus" by EU members on Kosovo, but predicted a "long period of difficulty" if Kosovo goes ahead and declares independence unilaterally.
Discord among EU members
The length of the EU's mission, expected to cost some 200 million euros ($296 million) in 2008, has not been finalized. But diplomats have regularly spoken of Kosovo being under "supervised independence" for five to 10 years.
The bloc has not been able to reach agreement on whether to recognize Kosovo, should it declare independence. Some countries, particularly Spain, are concerned a unilateral declaration of independence on the part of ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province would strengthen nationalist tendencies among minorities in their own nations.
Hashim Thaci, Kosovo's recently elected prime minister, has said his government could proclaim independence within days of Serbia's presidential election on Sunday.
Serbia's "secret plan"
Serbia is strongly opposed to independence for the province, which is 90 percent populated by Albanians, and has repeatedly said it will use all peaceful means at its disposal to protect its territorial integrity.
"We will use all the diplomatic, political, economic and legal means to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country," Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said on Friday during a visit to Bratislava. He was speaking at a joint press conference with his Slovak counterpart Jan Kubis.
Jeremic added that the Belgrade government had developed a "secret plan" that would be put in place if Kosovo declared independence. He would not, however, elaborate on the plan's details.
"The vast majority of Serbian citizens in our southern province of Kosovo will choose not to associate themselves with such a decision," Jeremic said.
Serbian poll could influence independence
Experts warn that declaring independence could trigger further conflicts, with Albanians in Serbia and Serbs in northern Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina following suit.
Steinmeier and Bildt renewed the EU's offer of visa-free travel for Serbs, a free trade agreement and money to help more Serbs study in Europe.
The German minister said he was uncertain whether the offer would affect the outcome of the run-off presidential election in Serbia on Sunday. In the first round of balloting, ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic, a Euroskeptic, won the most votes.
Experts in the EU expect Kosovo to declare independence immediately if Nikolic wins the presidential election. A win by pro-European incumbent Boris Tadic, however, could delay such an announcement by 10 days, experts said.
Kosovo has been under United Nations administration since a NATO-led campaign ended violence there in 1999.