BRUSSELS - European Union governments agreed on Tuesday to start membership negotiations with Montenegro, but told the former Yugoslav state to step up its fight against corruption and organized crime.

It will take years of talks before the tiny mountainous state of 680,000 people can become an EU member, in a process that aims to strengthen democratic institutions and align a candidate's laws with European standards.

Ministers for European affairs from EU member governments, meeting in Luxembourg, said Montenegro had met the necessary criteria to start talks.

"The (ministers') council underlined the particular importance of ... the independence of the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organized crime," they said in a statement.

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