The European Union set Albania on the road to membership today, agreeing to give the small Balkan state the status of candidate to join, the bloc's enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle said.
"Congratulations on candidate status just agreed," Mr Füle said on Twitter. "(It is an) acknowledgement of reform efforts,encouragement for more."
#Albania congratulations on candidate status just agreed by Ministers: acknowledgement of reform efforts,encouragement for more.— Štefan Füle (@StefanFuleEU) June 24, 2014
The decision, which must be confirmed by EU leaders at a Brussels summit on Friday, was the first major step on EU enlargement since European elections in May when eurosceptic and anti-immigration parties performed strongly, a development which could slow further expansion of the 28-nation bloc.
A NATO member of some three million people, Albania will have to meet further reform conditions to actually start negotiations on entry, a lengthy process that aims to bring the candidates' laws in line with EU rules and can take many years.
It will also face reluctance among many EU members to further enlargement of the bloc, fuelled by concerns over economic costs, rising euroscepticism and disappointment with democratic progress in the EU's latest members, Romania and Bulgaria.
As in those two Balkan countries, corruption and organised crime are major problems in Albania.
Underscoring caution in the EU, Germany's State Secretary for Europe Michael Roth said joining the EU was not automatic.
"Albania made some progress in the fight against corruption and rule of law. But there is a clear expectation. Without democratic structures ...without an independent judiciary, without a fight against corruption, there is no EU membership," he told reporters before EU ministers took the decision in Luxembourg.
"This isn't a green light for membership," a diplomat from another EU state said. "Albania will have to make major reforms if it is going to progress."
The Netherlands, Britain, Germany, France, the Czech Republic and Spain were the member states taking the toughest stance on demanding reforms from Albania, one EU official said.
In a statement, the EU said Albania had to address issues such as the use of fraudulent documents, money laundering, drug cultivation and human trafficking.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said that, with the EU's decision, Albania had "regained its lost dignity in the eyes of international partners."
"It was not an easy job, Europe is not a door that opens easily. After the (European) elections, things could have gone in another direction. The reason I am thankful to Europeanleaders ... is that they stood by the project of Europe," he told reporters in the Albanian capital Tirana.
Having shed a Stalinist dictatorship, Albania escaped the wars that embroiled its northern neighbours in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but a chaotic transition to capitalism has left the country mired in poverty and corruption.
Of its western Balkan peers, Albania joins Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia as official candidates for membership. Croatia and Slovenia have already joined the bloc and Serbia and Montenegro have both begun accession talks.
Macedonia's bid has been delayed due to a row with neighbouring Greece over Macedonia's name. Both Bosnia and Kosovo are yet to be granted candidate status.