Copyright Financial Times Ltd. 2006. All rights reserved.)
Ivan "the Doctor" Todorov's luck finally ran out three months ago. One of Europe's biggest cigarette smugglers, he had been living on borrowed time since surviving a car bomb in the centre of the Bulgarian capital in 2003. But on February 22 gunmen pumped his Porsche Cayenne with bullets in broad daylight in downtown Sofia.
Contract killings are not unusual in the Balkan country but this one sent ripples around the European Union. Bulgaria hopes to join the EU in 2007 and the assassination of "the Doctor" took place on the very day an EU expert was in town assessing the country's fight against organised crime.
A number of things about Todorov's murder seemed strange to Klaus Jansen, a veteran German police investigator not least, that he knew of the hit before the head of intelligence at Bulgaria's organised crime fighting unit. But what really struck him was that the "Doctor" was gunned down in an area swarming with police the Turkish prime minister had passed close by half an hour earlier.
The case provoked an outcry and led to the arrest of the notorious Marguins brothers, accused of plotting Todorov's death and two other murders.
But such enterprising police work has been in evidence only recently and remains rare. Boris Veltchev, Bulgaria's chief prosecutor, has no reliable figures on how many contract killings have taken place the European Commission estimates 173 murders or attempted murders since 1992. But one stark statistic stands out: none of the killers has ever been convicted.
The fact that gangs involved in people-trafficking, smuggling, drug-running and money laundering have been operating beyond the law may once have been of relatively little concern to the wider world. But Bulgaria's problem is about to become Europe's problem.
When it joins the EU as it will in 2007 or 2008 Bulgaria will be part of a club promising open borders and a high level of cross- border co-operation, including the sharing of police intelligence. Up to ?15bn (GBP10.2bn, $19.2bn) of European money is earmarked for the country over the next seven years, a tempting target for criminal gangs.
Mr Jansen worries that information passed to the Bulgarian police will end up in the hands of the mafia. He claims the authorities have limited interest in tackling the trafficking of Bulgarian prostitutes and are ineffective in tackling money laundering by the drugs trade. Random raids to seize counterfeit goods were seldom carried out because "they do not know where to store these goods".
Mr Jansen has been criticised by the European Commission for going public but his findings will on Tuesday be echoed by an official report into Bulgaria's preparations for EU membership.
Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, will raise six "red flags" denoting serious concern about Bulgaria, including its failure to provide tangible results in the fight against organised crime, failing fully to implement laws to tackle corruption, insufficient efforts to tackle money laundering and a failure to exert proper control over EU funds.
Mr Rehn will warn Bulgaria its entry into the EU could be delayed by a year until 2008 the severest penalty available to him unless it starts to get serious in its fight against crime by the autumn. He could also impose financial penalties and legal safeguards to minimise the EU's exposure to Bulgarian organised crime.
But as Mr Jansen notes, Bulgaria has a firm promise of entry, and this has encouraged a negligent approach among some officials in Sofia. "They know they are coming in anyway," he says.
Two questions arise: has the club misplayed its negotiating hand with Sofia and will this painful experience further harden public opinion against future enlargement with serious consequences for countries in the western Balkans, Turkey and perhaps eventually Ukraine?
The first thing to note is that enlargement is widely seen as one of the EU's greatest successes, helping to entrench democracy and the market economy in countries emerging from years of totalitarian rule, including Greece, Portugal, Spain and Poland. Even France, normally cautious on enlargement, this month described the 2004 expansion which incorporated eight former Soviet bloc countries as "a remarkable success".
Bulgaria and Romania, with a combined population of about 30m, are the back markers in the "big bang" 2004 enlargement. Because of their relative poverty and slow recovery from more than 40 years of communism, the EU gave Bulgaria and Romania more time to prepare for membership.
Accession negotiations were finally wrapped up in 2004 with a view to both countries joining on January 1 2007, or 2008 at the latest.
Much has changed since then. In the spring of 2005, French and Dutch voters rejected the EU constitutional treaty, with politicians in both countries claiming that the union's rapid and costly enlargement had been a major factor. Meanwhile fears spread across western Europe that jobs were being "delocalised" to low-cost countries in the east, while low-wage migrant workers were heading west.
Sergey Stanishev, Bulgaria's prime minister, admits the attitude has soured. "Enlargement is a great success story for Europe but very badly communicated," he says. "It would be a mistake to give the impression that Bulgaria and Romania are coming in as a compromise. We are not second class Europeans. I have every confidence my people will be good Europeans."
Nevertheless Bulgaria has not helped itself. Parliamentary elections in June 2005 delayed the implementation of legal and police reforms, and political momentum behind the fight against organised crime and corruption stalled.
Romania, regarded only 18 months ago by Brussels as the bigger challenge, has meanwhile made big strides. On Tuesday the European Commission will urge Romania to continue its crackdown on corruption which is still widespread but its "red flag" concerns now apply only to technical issues, largely in the agricultural field.
Bulgaria appears only recently to have woken up to the gravity of the situation. Mr Veltchev, a former law professor, was appointed two months ago to shake things up. He says the legal system in his country is not intrinsically corrupt and that only a small number of magistrates are bent, but acknowledges: "Corruption in the judiciary is a hard fact."
Mr Veltchev says he is not going to sanction "show trials" to satisfy Brussels but argues that big fish are now being reeled in, including a former mayor of Sofia and a senior official handling EU funds and now the Marguins. Mr Rehn is encouraged but wants proof that this trend is "irreversible".
Why has the EU failed, in the case of Bulgaria, to embedcultural change ahead of enlargement? Although the country has made great progress and is unrecognisable from the state that emerged from communism, some officials in Brussels say it was a mistake effectively to close formal membership negotiations with Sofia in June 2004.
Some say Gunter Verheugen, the German EU enlargement commissioner at the time, rushed through the Bulgarian talks to notch up another success before his mandate expired in the autumn of 2004. Others blame the Irish, who held the rotating EU presidency in the first half of 2004, for wanting quick results on Bulgaria.
The political reality is that Bulgaria's membership credentials were endorsed by all 25 member states at a time before the full- blown symptoms of "enlargement fatigue" among Europe's citizens had been fully recognised.
Mr Verheugen says everyone knew at the time that Romania and Bulgaria would present special problems: "They are different and that's why they are late," he says. But he argues that the reform process does not stop when a country joins the club: indeed it often accelerates.
He believes the progress made by both countries in many areas is being overlooked by those who are seeking scapegoats for last year's No votes in France and the Netherlands. "Bulgaria and Romania are now responsible for political problems that have nothing to do with them."
One thing is certain: the European Union will be more cautious in future. Members of the European parliament are using the Bulgarian experience to call for much tougher scrutiny of future members.
France has tabled a draft communique to the June EU summit, calling for public opinion and the ability of the union to "absorb" new members to be considered when assessing future membership bids.
Politicians in some European capitals now fear that promises of eventual membership to the four countries of the war-battered western Balkans Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia could be watered down. "People seem to have very short memories," says Olli Rehn.
Mr Rehn is confident that the door will be kept open: the four Balkan countries are relatively small they have a combined population of about 25m and the stakes are high. Michel Barnier, former French foreign minister and policy adviser to presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, told the Financial Times: "If you don't have a membership perspective for theBalkans, that is very dangerous."
Jose Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, is also resisting calls from some EU capitals to define the eventual boundaries of the union. "What is the point? There would be no agreement," he has said.
For the time being, at least, membership talks with Turkey will continue. But for countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia, whose membership aspirations have never been recognised, the outlook is bleak.
After Bulgaria and Romania, the union will have time to pause and digest the latest enlargement. Only two other countries have started formal membership talks Croatia, which may not join for another five years, and Turkey which has been told it cannot join until 2014 at the earliest.
The latest Eurobarometer opinion poll shows 55 per cent of Europeans still feel positive about enlargement. However, the pollsters discovered that 53 per cent viewed the process with "indifference, fear, annoyance or frustration".
It is an ominously gloomy verdict on a process that has done much to transform a continent. The European Commission's report on Tuesday on Bulgaria's preparation for membership is unlikely to lighten the mood.
CLASS OF '89 SETS ROMANIA ON A STEADY COURSE
Bogdan Olteanu was an 18-year-old student in 1989, the year that Nicolae Ceausescu's oppressive and extravagant rule came to a bloody end on the streets of Bucharest.
Today he is a lean, shaven-headed representative of a new generation of Romanian politicians, the president of the chamber of deputies that meets amid the obscene splendour of Ceausescu's vast People's Palace.
For Mr Olteanu, Romania's likely accession to the European Union on January 1 2007 marks the culmination of a personal political journey.
"During the 1989 revolution we knew what we were fighting against but not what we were fighting for," he says. "We had to define it later, and it turns out that what we were trying to define were European values. Joining the EU is a recognition of those values."
Romania, with a population of 22m, will become the seventh- biggest member of the EU but one of the poorest: its gross domestic product per capita in 2004 was ?7,000 (GBP4,770, $8,980), or 31 per cent of the EU average.
Until the beginning of last year, Romania seemed less prepared than Bulgaria to join the EU but has since powered ahead of its southern neighbour.
"Romania has made progress in the fight against corruption," Olli Rehn, EU enlargement commissioner, told the European parliament last month, highlighting investigations against high-level figures, including Adrian Nastas, former prime minister.
"It gives a signal to society that for the first time in the history of the country, nobody is above the law," Mr Rehn said.
In spite of this progress, Mr Rehn will today tell Romania there is more to do, including continuing the momentum of its fight against corruption and putting in place technical systems for the payment of EU farm subsidies.