Albania has announced it will apply for membership to the 27-member European Union. But European leaders warn the country has a long road ahead of it before it's ready to join the bloc.
Albania says it's ready to become an EU member
Albania has formally submitted an application to join the European Union despite a call from the European Commission to wait until after elections in June.
Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha submitted the application in Prague to Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.
Welcoming the membership bid, Topolanek said: "There is a long way ahead for Albania and I hope it will be crowned with success."
Berisha described the application as the "number one priority for the entire country."
The Commission had urged Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries, to wait until after parliamentary elections on 28 June before submitting its application. According to the EU's executive body, polls in the post-communist Balkan country have never been certified free and fair by international observers.
In a report released in November, the European Commission said that Albania needed to make more progress in strengthening the state administration and courts as well as fighting organized crime and corruption.
Albania's bid to join the 27-member trading bloc follows the submission of a membership application by the neighbouring Balkan state of Montenegro in December. Nearby Serbia is expected to submit an application to join the EU later this year.
This year all EU member states completed the ratification of a Stabilization and Association Agreement signed by Albania three years ago in a first step towards membership. Earlier this month Albania along with Croatia joined the NATO security alliance.
At the opposite end of Europe, Iceland is widely expected to make a swift application for EU membership following elections at the weekend which saw the island's caretaker coalition of Social Democrats and Left-Greens win a historic victory.