In the past months, New Europe’s Kassandra has opened a dossier on the purchase of the residence for the EU head of delegation in Albania. Following our coverage, the EEAS has requested we publish the following letter. We publish it below, along with our response.
Letter from the EEAS
The stories in New Europe regarding the work of the European Union’s Delegation in Albania EU as well as Ambassador Romana Vlahutin (ex. EU pays double, The powerful Allies of Edi Rama, Vlachudin under investigation) are factually incorrect, contain fabrications and slander.
This is particularly obvious in your writings about the purchase of the EU residence in Tirana – a purchase that was a result of a process that included a comprehensive analysis, including a market survey and an independent expert estimate, and that started before the current head of delegation was even appointed. In fact, the purchase is in line with the approach of the European External Action Service (EEAS) to increase the number of owned properties, when buying offers a better value for money than renting, and when other arguments like security prevail.
All rules were followed. Your claims and insinuations are simply not true, and seem to be an attempt to deflect the focus away from the work the EU is doing in support of a difficult, but very necessary justice reform in Albania. We fully support and have full confidence in Ambassador Vlahutin and the entire team at the delegation who work with dedication and professionalism.
Spokesperson for EU foreign policy and enlargement negotiations
A response on the behalf of Kassandra
Kassandra is very happy to correct what we wrote about Ambassador Romana Vlahutin and we regret having misled our readers. Indeed, the EU did not pay double for the purchase of the notorious villa in Tirana. According to the EEAS’ own responses to questions by the European Parliament – the 345 sqm surface area we initially referenced was incorrect, and the actual living area of the residence is 585 sqm (Not bad at all for the EU Ambassador in Albania).
Indeed, our comparison on our cover story entitled “EU Pays Double” was with another villa in Rollin Hills, the area of which was 783 sqm for a price of 850,000 Euro.
That would mean, running the numbers again, that the EU paid not double, but just over 2.5 times as much. 2.59819005 times to be exact?
Now to justify this purchase, the EEAS made several arguments to explain why purchase and not continue to rent a building. The specific choice of residence however, was backed up by three documents – referred to by the spokesperson of the EEAS in the letter above, and in previous statements:
(i) a market survey carried out prior to the purchase of the residence,
(ii) an evaluation carried out by the independent expert
(iii) a report of the Regional Security Officer of the EEAS in relation to security aspects.
The New Europe editorial team requested these documents through a standard information request but was denied access. New Europe’s Editor subsequently filed an official application for the documents through the ‘Access to Documents’ procedure of Regulation 1049/2001. The request was initially rejected in its entirety. Following an appeal, known as a ‘confirmatory application’, Document (iii) was supplied nearly fully redacted. Documents (i) and (ii) were again not supplied.
The highlight of the refusal of the EEAS to provide document (ii) is that the ‘evaluation’ of the ‘independent expert’ could not be provided because this would contravene with the confidentiality clause included in the document. A confidentiality clause for a real-estate evaluation! The EEAS also claimed that they were also “not able to identify an overriding public interest” for providing the documents – as if the determination that taxpayer money was indeed well spent is not in the overriding interest of the public when doubt has been created – whether in the media or otherwise.
The only enemy of mis- or dis- information is the truth, it is not obscurity and hiding behind confidentiality clauses in documents that should not have them in the first place.
It is not that we, at New Europe, do not want to believe that there is nothing wrong with the purchase of the residence in Albania. It is that we are not given the hard proof that this is the case and have been asked to have blind faith in purchasing and procurement processes which have historically been problematic around the world.
As watchdogs for an accountable society and accountable political institutions, it is our duty to be ever more cautious, and ever more vigilant in our pursuit of transparency and truth.
Releasing the documents mentioned above in their entirety – barring certain parts of the security report which can create danger, is a much more transparent, democratic, and accountable exercise. If the EEAS believes we can be convinced, we will also accept one of our team members seeing them behind closed doors after signing a confidentiality agreement.
Finally, in the letter above from the EEAS, we are told that our articles “are factually incorrect, contain fabrications and slander.”
New Europe is in its 25th year of publication. We have been intimidated through letters and law suits, by heads of state and government, and this week by the EEAS. Not one law suit has succeeded, not one act of intimidation has made us step back from doing our jobs to uncover the truth.
Indeed, to allege that an article contains slander, is an indirect threat of legal action by the EEAS, and we consider that the above letter that we are being forced to publish under indirect threat of legal action is in itself slanderous, defamatory, and an abuse of power.
The EAAS has an army of lawyers, the support of the Legal Service of the Commission (besides its own Legal Unit), all on the clock and paid by the taxpayer, while New Europe has only one in-house lawyer dealing with such issues.
In fact there are probably more lawyers working for the EEAS, than there are staff in our organisation.
If the EEAS considers that we have indeed slandered the Institution, we are looking forward to seeing the EAAS in Court. We are not quite clear as to who the plaintiff against Kassandra will be, but we look forward to the opportunity to questioning them on the stand.
Basil A. Coronakis