EU countries have agreed to proceed with Albania's application for membership of the European Union, a first step in a long process towards possible membership of the bloc, EU diplomats said.
Ambassadors from the 27 EU states decided at a meeting in Brussels to ask the European Commission to prepare an assessment of Albania's readiness to start membership talks, the diplomats said.
The decision is expected to be formally approved by EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Brussels on 16 and 17 November.
Albania applied to join the EU last April. If it is allowed to start membership talks, it will become an official candidate and will be asked to carry out wide-ranging political and economic reforms to meet EU standards, a process that can take years.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn had earlier cautioned that Albania still had a long way to go to meet EU standards.
At a joint news conference after meeting Albanian Foreign Minister Ilir Meta, Rehn said Albania needed to improve the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, and ensure the freedom and protection of the media. He underlined that any country wanting to join the EU had to meet political criteria to start membership talks and warned that a continued boycott of parliament by the political opposition could delay the country's progress.
"If the parliamentary boycott were to continue for long, it would have a negative impact on the analysis of the political criteria and thus have negative ramifications on the chances of being granted candidate status by the European Union," he said.
Albania's Socialists have been boycotting parliament since a 28 June election, when the ruling Democratic Party won a second mandate by the smallest margin in any election held since the end of communist rule in the Balkan state in 1992.
Rehn said it was important for a country to demonstrate political maturity if it wanted to join the European Union and urged both sides to resolve the dispute.
"It takes two to tango," he said. "I appeal to the opposition that it would end this parliamentary boycott which does not respect European democratic standards. Democratic debate must take place within the parliament."
Meta told the news conference the government was committed to carrying out reforms and said more tangible progress would be seen soon.
(EURACTIV with Reuters.)