TIRANA The European Union will decide this month whether to set Albania on the road to membership after the bloc's executive arm on Wednesday gave the green light following years of political polarisation that slowed reforms.
More than two decades since the fall of its communist government, Albania remains one of Europe's poorest nations, a NATO member but still trailing many of its western Balkan peers on the road to the EU.
Following a change of government in September last year, the European Commission commended Albania's pursuit of EU-backed reforms, notably in terms of fighting crime and corruption.
"Based on our findings, we confirm without any doubt, with no conditionality or any reservations the recommendation that the member states grant Albania candidate status," Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele told reporters in Tirana.
The tone of Fuele's remarks suggested the Commission was confident of winning the necessary support of all 28 EU member states on June 23. There have been positive signals from Germany and the Netherlands, and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama heads to France next week to press his case.
Full membership, however, remains years away, and a strong showing by eurosceptic and anti-immigration parties in European Parliamentary elections last month may further turn opinion in Europe against taking in other poorer ex-communist nations in the east.
Even if it becomes an official candidate, Albania must wait for the green light to begin accession talks.
In a report to the EU Council, the Commission said: "Important legislative reforms have been introduced in the fight against organised crime and investigations have yielded positive results in the fight against drug trafficking and other areas of serious and organised crime."
Albania had also demonstrated its commitment to judicial reform, it said.
Having shed a paranoid Stalinist dictatorship, Albania escaped the wars that embroiled its northern neighbours in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but a chaotic transition to capitalism and polarisation between the two main political blocs - the Socialists and the Democrats - has slowed reform and left the country mired in poverty and corruption.
The Socialists of former Tirana mayor Edi Rama took power last year following eight years of Democrat rule under fiery veteran Sali Berisha. The two remain sworn enemies.
Fuele said progress would depend on political will to take decisive action against organised crime and corruption, and on reforming the judiciary.
Pointing the finger at an old wound, Fuele reiterated that the tense political climate was damaging for Albania's image and said the government and opposition should seek common ground in the interests of moving closer to the EU.
The Commission recommended candidate status for Albania last year, but some member states said they preferred to wait a little longer to see if Rama's government would continue its promising start.
"It must be something in the air in this country - whenever you are in the political opposition...certain European senses are being switched off and make it extremely difficult to reach consensus for what is called a European agenda," Fuele said.
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.
(Editing by Matt Robinson and Angus MacSwan)