TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania cleared the first hurdle on its long path to European Union membership Tuesday, with the EU granting candidate status on the country's fourth try. Albania has failed to win the coveted status three times since 2009.
Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said in a Twitter post the decision taken by the 28-nation bloc's foreign ministers at their meeting in Luxembourg represented an "acknowledgement of reform efforts" by Albania.
The decision, which is subject to endorsement by the European Council on Friday, is the first major hurdle to become a member of the EU, a bloc of half a billion people that forms the world's biggest economy.
However, membership isn't automatic. Albania will have to meet many requirements in tackling crime and corruption, and bringing its judiciary and administration to European standards, which could take years.
"For Albania, today's decision should translate into a strengthened endorsement of its reform agenda: Albania still needs to meet key priorities, with particular focus on administration and judiciary reform, fight against corruption and organized crime, and fundamental rights," the European Commission said in a statement.
"Candidate status does not mean that the EU will automatically start accession negotiations with Albania, which is a subsequent, separate step in the EU integration process, for which additional progress, in the key priorities, is required," it added.
As part of efforts to show it takes its commitments seriously, Albanian police last week took control of the lawless southern village of Lazarat, a main source of marijuana production, after a four-day gunbattle in which 800 police came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and mortars.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who came to power in June 2013, has pledged to push for EU membership.
After speaking by phone with Fule, Rama said in a Twitter post he was "proud that we all together did it. Thanks and gratitude to all of you."
Speaking in a televised news conference later Tuesday, Rama said the membership negotiations will be "more intensive, the road is more difficult and the challenge becomes bigger."
"We are convinced that we shall do it despite the conditionalities set on us because those we have set on ourselves are much stronger," Rama said.
He also praised the opposition, saying that gaining candidate status was not "an exclusive achievement of the government."
"It takes two to tango," Rama said, mindful of the EU's statement that stressed the importance of "continued and sustainable dialogue between the government and the opposition on EU-related reforms."
The main opposition Democratic Party did not initially issue a statement, but its former leader and ex-prime minister, Sali Berisha, expressed "deep gratitude to all citizens" for supporting the reforms, and hailed "the extraordinary support EU member countries' governments have given Albania in its road of integration."
Juergen Baetz contributed to this report from Brussels.