Albania granted 'EU candidate' status

The country had already received three rejections since 2009.

EU ministers in Luxembourg Tuesday brought Albania one step closer to EU membership by awarding it official "candidate" status.

However, they also warned the Balkan country that much work still lies ahead before it can become a member of the bloc.

The European Commission had already said it merits the step due to internal reforms.

On Twitter, EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele described the decision as “an acknowledgement of reform efforts, encouragement for more."

"It's far from membership, but it's an important step and it's something which Albania has richly deserved," Croatia's EU affairs minister Vesna Pusic said.

Albania was expecting the European Union to grant it candidate status Tuesday to join the bloc, after three rejections since 2009.

It is now among eight nations that are candidates or potential candidates to join the EU.

The EU had postponed its decision in December, asking the country to show tangible results in fighting corruption and organized crime, and consolidating the rule of law. Prime Minister Edi Rama's Socialist party, which came to power in June 2013, has pledged to push for EU integration.

Candidate status doesn't mean automatic membership. Tirana will have to meet requirements in tackling crime and corruption, and bringing its justice system and administration to European standards.

As part of efforts to show it takes its commitments seriously, Albanian police recently took control of a lawless southern village, a main source of marijuana production, after a four-day gun-battle.