The EU Ombudsman has agreed with Exit’s request to the European External Action Service (EEAS) to release the tender documents pertaining to the acquisition of the official residence of EU Ambassador Romana Vlahutin.
In a series of articles, Exit has revealed that the procedures to acquire the villa, at a total of cost €1,977,500, raised issues of possible corruption, because the “pre-selection” of five villas from which the final selection was made included several properties which were unfinished, above budget, or not for sale. The “pre-selection” therefore looked very much like a pre-selection often made in governmental tender procedures, in which the desired winner indeed becomes the only possible winner.
Exit therefore requested the EEAS, which oversees the EU diplomatic corps, to release the 16 offers from which the 5 possible villas were “pre-selected” by the staff of the EU Delegation in Albania, and which was not inspected by the independent experts flown in after the pre-selection had been made.
The EEAS rejected this request on the grounds that it “would […] undermine the protection of commercial interests”:
I hereby confirm that releasing the list of offered properties (part of the market survey) would indeed undermine the protection of commercial interests of a natural or legal person, as per Article 4(2)1st indent of the abovementioned Regulation [(EC) No 1049/2001]. Therefore, I cannot grant you access to such list.
After this rejection, Exit appealed to the EU Ombudsman to receive the documents in question, since publishing the information contained in them does not necessary undermine commercial interests as long as the names are anonymized.
In a letter dated August 30, the EU Ombudsman indicated that it would grant Exit’s request:
I would also like to inform you that following the inspection, we have contacted the EEAS with a proposal aimed at finding a solution to your complaint, namely disclosing an anonymised version of the list of properties.
Exit is currently waiting for the EEAS to comply with the Ombudsman’s decision and provide the anonymized documents containing the 16 offers.
Inspection of these documents will then allow us to conclude whether the pre-selection indeed “cherry-picked” in order to award the tender to a preferred seller, or whether the procurement process was indeed completely conform the regulations set by the EU itself.
The suspicions of Exit are completely warranted. The EU Delegation in Tirana has a history of maladministration, which has been documented through decisions of the EU Ombudsman. Moreover, last summer the poor project supervision of the EU Delegation was again brought to light, when two sewerage pipes in Saranda and Ksamil, both supposedly renovated with millions of EU money, burst open and flooded the seaside with sewerage.
In spite of the documented history of maladministration, and persisted rumors of corruption that surround the EU Delegation in Tirana, the European Commission consistently calls any criticism or investigation of the actions of the EU in Albania “slander.” The most recent instance is in answer to a written question of MEP Eleftherios Synadinos.
MEP Synadinos had asked:
The EU Ambassador to Albania, together with her family, has been under 24-hour armed police protection following threats linked to her monitoring of a reform of Albania’s judiciary designed to weed out corruption in its legal system.
At the same time, Sali Berisha, the former Prime Minister of Albania, recently objected to what he described as the ambassador’s unconditional support for the Government and the existence of their hidden connections with an investor compensation fund.
The ambassador’s close and partisan relationship with Prime Minister Edi Rama was reflected in her failure to address certain issues in reply to a written question from the Commissioner responsible for enlargement and neighbourhood issues.
Indeed, her relations with the Prime Minister are to their mutual benefit, her husband being regularly awarded public contracts in Albania, which, it can be reasonably argued, raises a number of obvious questions and has undeniable implications. Furthermore, the problem of corruption and questions regarding transparency and reward on the basis of merit are issues that arise regularly in EU reports on Albania.
Finally, a financial scandal is now brewing regarding the vastly inflated cost of the ambassador’s official residency and the procedures followed for the acquisition thereof.
Given that there are clear indications of unjustifiable conduct by the ambassador serving her own personal interests, will the Commission relieve Ms Vlahutin of her duties pending clarification of these issues?
To which EU High Representative Federica Mogherini responded:
The EU is keenly aware of the sustained campaign of allegations directed at the EU Delegation in Tirana and its Head of Delegation. Such allegations have been systematically and fully refuted.
In the matter of the purchase of the residence, which is raised by the Honourable Member, reference is made to the answers provided by the European External Action Service in the framework of the 2015 discharge.
Pursuant to the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, applicable to the EU Delegation by virtue of the Establishment Agreement, the Host State is responsible for the protection of the diplomatic staff, their dependents and the premises used by the European Union. The nature of the measures required is coordinated with the competent authorities of the Host State.
Until now, Exit has seen no “systematic and full refutation,” or, in fact, any reasoned and factually substantiated argument of the EU. Instead, our investigation, which would have been very brief should the EEAS had been open and transparent, has been blocked and consistently by the EEAS, which hides behind confidentiality while refusing to be accountable to the tax payers of the EU, which all have the right to know why it was necessary and inevitable to spend €2 million on a villa in a compound widely known to be built by Albania’s richest oligarch. And similarly, all Albanian citizens deserve to know what is really happening in this EU institution that claims to have such a great (and supposedly positive) impact on the future of the country.