The European Union has told Montenegro there will be no shortcut to membership, but that a key agreement could be concluded by the end of 2006.
Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (left) says Montenegro is capable
Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said it was possible to reach a "stability and association agreement" this year.
He was speaking after talks with Montenegrin leader Milo Djukanovic, who says his country could fulfil all joining conditions in a few years.
It is his first trip abroad since Montenegro voted for independence.
Serbia and Montenegro had been holding talks with Brussels on a stabilisation and association agreement (SAA) - seen as the first step to joining the EU.
That was put on hold earlier this month, after the EU said Serbia had failed to fully co-operate with the United Nations' international war crimes tribunal by arresting Bosnian Serb fugitive Ratko Mladic.
Montenegro voted to become an independent state in a public referendum on 21 May.
The BBC's Alix Kroeger, in Brussels, says the EU is already worried about the number of countries in the membership queue.
As with Romania and Bulgaria, who hope to join next year, the EU wants Montenegro to do more to fight organised crime and to strengthen its judiciary.
Mr Djukanovic is still under investigation in Italy for cigarette smuggling. But he was upbeat at the meeting in Brussels.
"We are conscious that international attention is now focused on us, and on our ability to adopt international standards," he said. "We are ready and capable of meeting such expectations."
Mr Rehn agreed with Mr Djukanovic's view that the first step towards eventual EU membership - the stability and association agreement - could be settled by the end of this year.
"If the negotiations continue as professionally and effectively as thus far, then we should be able to conclude the negotiations before the end of this year," said Mr Rehn.
"Montenegro has a concrete European perspective like other countries of the western Balkans. However, as I told the prime minister, there is no shortcut to Europe."
Mr Rehn is due to leave for Belgrade, where the process of unravelling the union of Serbia and Montenegro is now getting underway.
Our correspondent says there will be no rush to recognise the independence of Europe's newest state.
She adds that the EU is likely to decide as a block, rather than each country granting recognition on its own.