INVESTIGATION: Where did the European Union’s billion euros for the Danube Delta actually go

info-Sud-Est.ro (5/3/21), Süddeutsche Zeitung (26/2/21), NRC Handelsblad (10/5/21)

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Our investigation reveals how the European Union’s €1.114 billion investment to save the Danube Delta passed into the hands of a network of Romanian politicians, NGOs and businessmen.

By Tristen Taylor, Andreea Pavel, Cristian Leonte, Ingrid Gercama and Nathalie Bertrams

On the 12th of June 2017, a high-level delegation from the European Commission arrived in Tulcea, a small Romanian port city at the edge of the Danube Delta. They were on an urgent mission to save the EU’s €1.114 billion investment to preserve the Delta’s biodiversity and lift its residents out of poverty.

While the investment began in 2014, only 3% of the funds had been spent. The Integrated Territorial Investment (ITI) Danube Delta, the EU’s biggest single point investment in Romania, was on the brink of collapse.

This investment was supposed to be a showpiece on how to save the environment and raise living standards in a UNESCO world heritage site. Moreóver, it is an official part of the 2014 to 2020 partnership agreement between Romania and the European Commission. Johannes Hahn, the current Budget Commissioner, negotiated the agreement and the creation of ITI Danube Delta with the then Romanian Minister for European Funds, Eugen Teodorovici.

In order to address the crisis, the delegation sat down with people who were supposed to be implementing the EU’s investment: the Association for Community Development – ITI Danube Delta (ADI-ITI) was joined by Horia Teodorescu, the president of the Tulcea County Council. According to EU documents, Teodorescu kicked off the meeting at 14:30.

Just before the meeting concluded later that afternoon, one of the Commission’s representatives told ADI-ITI and Teodorescu exactly what the Commission wanted: over one billion worth of projects contracted by the end of 2020.

The representative said, “No obstacles will be placed, it is desired that ADI-ITI work. The contracting process needs to be accelerated…this acceleration being the priority number one of all factors involved.”

We don’t know the name of the representative. The European Commission has redacted the names of the attendees from the minutes.

Over a period of three months, we examined documentation from over one thousand tenders and looked at the wealth declarations of an array of Romanian politicians. We used Romanian databases to establish company ownership structures and financial accounts. Additionally, we received information from confidential sources from within both Romania and the European Commission.

This is the story of how funds meant to protect a unique ecosystem and help isolated villages get sewage systems did not reach the isolated communities but mostly went to the mainland instead of the Delta itself. It is also about how the mechanism fell under the control of politicians and businessmen connected through a web of personal, financial and political relationships.

But the story starts with ITI Danube Delta’s weak lines of accountability, confused programming and serious monitoring issues.

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