From 2014 to 2020, the European Commission invested €1.11 billion into Romania’s Danube Delta, a UNESCO world heritage site. Instead of alleviating poverty in this economically depressed region and preserving the unique ecology of Europe’s largest wetland, the funds fell under the control of a network of Romanian politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen.

Over four months, the cross-border team examined documentation from over 1,000 tenders and looked at the wealth declarations of local and national politicians. They used Romanian databases to establish company ownership and financial accounts. They interviewed politicians, anti-corruption specialists and EU officials. And they visited people and projects in the Delta to find out where the money went.

The journalists from four countries discovered that the county council president — locally called the “Baron” of the Delta — became the de facto chief of the billion-euro investment. His business and those of his friends, family, business partners and politically connected bureaucrats received millions of euros originally meant for nature conservation, a green economy and improved social services.

Out of nearly 1,200 contracts, only 16 percent were actually allocated for the Delta and only seven projects were earmarked for environmental protection, the investigation showed.

A high-ranking Romanian judge’s assessment is that all individuals and institutions named in the investigation should be investigated for money laundering, misuse of EU funds and/or conflict of interest.

The team also scrutinised the European Commission’s role. The finance mechanism used for the Delta is extremely complex and there aren’t clear lines of oversight and management of the billion euros. Moreover, while the EU hasn’t been monitoring or auditing its investment, it is planning to fund it again from 2021 to 2027.

Team members come from Romania, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain.

As a result of the investigation, the EU suspended payments to the Danube Delta in June 2021 and asked Romanian authorities to investigate. OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, officially opened an investigation. And the team of journalists was invited to present its findings in a special hearing of the European Parliament.

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Photos by Nathalie Bertrams

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