EU European affairs ministers cleared the way Tuesday for Albania to apply for membership to the 28-nation bloc, a process requiring major reforms by Tirana and likely to take many years.
The small, poor Balkan state will have to make "continued progress" on key reforms of its judiciary and public administration while cracking down on organized crime.
It will also have to improve respect for human rights and the treatment of minorities, as well as help to ease migration pressures on the European Union, a statement said.
Ministers said the government must also continue to promote dialogue with the opposition on its plans for EU membership.
Diplomats said granting Albania candidate status was meant to encourage further reforms but the process will take "some time" and membership is not assured.
The decision now has to go to EU leaders for approval.
In Tirana, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama welcomed the decision, describing it as the "beginning of a great challenge towards economic prosperity and progress."
"A lot of work still needs to be done, a lot of changes to be made before the start of the accession talks," Rama told reporters in Tirana.
Brussels insists that Albania must step up its fight against corruption and organized crime, as well as further strengthen the rule of law in the country.
"We have to undertake reforms... Albania can not join Europe with the existing justice system," Rama said.
The bloc expanded rapidly from 15 to 28 member states in the past 10 years, with the former communist countries of eastern Europe joining en masse.
Croatia was the last country to join the EU, in July last year, and Serbia began membership talks in January.
Since then the pace of enlargement has slowed, with the prospects for Albania's Balkan neighbors such as Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina uncertain.