In May last year, the Budgetary Control Committee (CONT) of the European Parliament went on its first-ever fact-finding mission to Albania, after ongoing suspicions about the procurement procedure surrounding the new residence of the then Head of EU Delegation, Romana Vlahutin, had led to an investigation of European Anti-Fraud Office OLAF and the chair of CONT Ingeborg Gräßle had stated that the case had “heavily damaged the image of the EU.”
The draft report of the CONT mission was published on September 12, 2018.
Although the report of the fact-finding mission, not led by Gräßle but by MEP Derek Vaughan from the S&D/UK Labor Party (a sister party of Rama’s PS), found very little facts, several of the phrasings in the report indeed raise serious concerns.
In the executive summary, for example, one finds the following curious phrasing:
“The visit confirmed that the EU funds spent in Albania are used well and efficiently and that the level of irregularities and fraud is not at an abnormal level.“
The immediate question one asks is: what is a “normal level” irregularities and fraud? Is the level of irregularities and fraud in Tirana just the regular level for EU Delegations around the world? Has CONT already acquiesced that “inevitably” there are going the be irregularities and fraud, and the only point is to make sure it doesn’t get to an “abnormal level”? None of this is actually made explicit in the report, and we are provided with very few facts. But we read on.
In its recommendation, the first point CONT makes is that the EU should not give more funds to Albania than it is currently doing:
“Even though Albania doesn’t receive a substantial amount of EU funds, it is questionable where more funds should be allocated until there is a capacity to effectively use additional funds.”
In short, this means that the EU Delegation in Tirana and the Albanian government already show considerable issues with “effectively” using the current EU funds, even though the amounts are not at all “substantial.” This says a lot about the budgetary and oversight skills of those who claim to represent Brussels in Tirana.
And, indeed, this is precisely what we have seen. Apart from the lingering questions around the procurement of Vlahutin’s villa, EU-funded sewerage projects in Shëngjin and Ksamil are prime cases of maladministration. But curiously, these projects fall outside the CONT report.
Also as regards the projects that are discussed, the CONT report fails to touch upon structural problems with the management of EU funded projects. For example, the Lungomare/Vlora waterfront project is simply described without any reference to delays that lasted years, the additional funds that were dumped into it by the government, and the fact that the reduction from a four to two-lane road causes traffic chaos every summer, as foreign and Albanian tourists cram into the only available in the country to reach the beaches in the south. Furthermore, this EU-funded project included an iconic case of illegal expropriation by the Albanian government, which was later condemned by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. All in all, hardly and example of a “successful” investment. But none of this is mentioned in the CONT report.
The only point of criticism is with the Vlora bypass project, which indeed showed such levels of incompetence that it is difficult even for a European Parliament mission led by a government-friendly MEP to gloss over it. The main cause of the collapse of the project (which was supposed to alleviate traffic along the Vlora waterfront) was the bankruptcy of the company hired by the government to complete it through a public procurement process that favored an unrealistically low bid. As a result, the CONT report now suggests that the Albanian government might lose the EU IPA funds for the project altogether:
“Delays on re-tendering cause further delays in implementation of the project and may result on [sic] losing the IPA contribution.”
Should the funds for the Vlora bypass be lost, this basically means the Albanian Riviera will, for the time being, become practically inaccessible during the summer season due to the Vlora waterfront restructuring cutting off most traffic to the south.
The CONT report hardly gives any credence to the valid complaints of the opposition, merely mentioning that:
“As these members represent parliamentary opposition, their picture of the country is significantly different to the one presented by the government officials two days before.”
No effort is made to find any facts. The CONT report merely mentions that the opposition present a different “picture,” but then simply continues to take the government’s narrative as a given. Again, for a fact-finding mission, sadly few “facts” are uncovered.
In spite of the serious deficiencies in the CONT report and its rather naive approach to government propaganda, it is clear that the report is not positive. It concludes that the EU Delegation in Tirana and the Albanian government do not have the capacity to handle more EU funds than it currently does, and the Vlora bypass project, a project former Ambassador Vlahutin put considerable amount of personal energy in, risks losing the vital EU investment to unlock the Albanian Riviera.
Moreover, we have to content ourselves with the fact that at the EU Delegation in Tirana “the level of irregularities and fraud is not at an abnormal level.” That’s a relief!
– Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei