The European Union set Albania on the road to membership on Tuesday, agreeing to give the small Balkan state the status of candidate to join in recognition of the government's recent reform efforts, Reuters reported.
Years of political polarisation have slowed democratic reforms in Albania and kept it behind some of its ex-Yugoslav peers. But a change of government last September opened the way for an EU-backed reform push.
"Congratulations on candidate status just agreed," EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said on Twitter. "[It is an] acknowledgement of reform efforts, encouragement for more."
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 have to overcome a reluctance among many EU members towards any 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.
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 is hostage to a row with neighbouring Greece over Macedonia's name. Bosnia and Kosovo are yet to be granted candidate status.