For the 2007-2013 (N+3 decommitment) programming period, “Romania ranked last in the European Union in terms of accessing European funds”, with the regional Human Resources Development Program (POSDRU) having “the smallest degree of absorption” among the EU funded programs in the country.
In August 2012, the POSDRU program was blocked for Romania by the European Commission over fraud concerns with regard to the period between 2009 and 2011. In February 2013, the program was unlocked, only to be once more interrupted in 2016 for irregularities registered between 2014 and 2016. In early 2016, in a speech before the Senate, Aura Răducu – at the time, Romania’s Minister for European Funds – declared that “these programs had great problems throughout their implementation between 2007 and 2015, both in elaborating guides, selecting projects, and implementing”.
This is the official picture, which is usually accompanied by cold financial analyses on Romania’s absorption ratio of EU funds over the years. But what about the personal stories behind it? How does a case of poorly designed and badly implemented EU-funded project look like? What do people affected by such projects actually say? The following is a brief recollection of my personal experience not only with a POSDRU project officially presenting “irregularities”, but with the Romanian authorities’ apparent inability or unwillingness to react when concerns regarding such “irregularities” were presented to them.
A false competition at the Romanian Academy
In April-May 2014, the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Quality of Life (ICCV) in Bucharest, affiliated with the Romanian Academy, organized a competition to select 40 postdoctoral researchers for the POSDRU Project called „PLURI- ȘI INTERDISCIPLINARITATE ÎN PROGRAME DOCTORALE ȘI POST-DOCTORALE”, ID-141086, Code of Project: POSDRU/159/1.5/S/141086, a project of over 8 million lei (about 2 million euro). Participating as a candidate in the contest for the selection of the 40 postdoctoral fellows I quickly realized that the selection was just a facade and that the list with the 40 persons that were eventually accepted in the program was actually known long before the opening of the competition. Together with thirty seven other researchers, in late May 2014, I filed a complaint to several Romanian authorities: to the ICCV, to the Romanian Ministry of Education, to the POSDRU Management Authority, to the Romanian Ministry of EU Funds etc. Our complaint was afterwards signed (through an online form) by other 293 persons. In 2014-2015, I wrote extensively about this case on my blog, and many Romanian online newspapers reported about it. Individually, other researchers filed several complaints to these and to other Romanian authorities. Still, nothing happened.
In our complaints, we reported problems such as:
- The methodology of the competition was vague and discriminatory. It was also changed several times during the competition.
- The conditions of eligibility were modified during the contest.
- The evaluation of the candidates was not made in accordance with the announced methodology.
- The evaluation commission did not even read the documentation from the files that the candidates submitted.
- Employees of the ICCV that were actively involved in organizing and running the contest were also candidates in the same competition. They had access to the files of the other candidates.
- Who were the members of the evaluation commission was and still is a big secret.
- People that were not members in the evaluation commission entered the interview room and addressed the candidates with questions.
- The members of the evaluation commission were in conflict of interests.
No official reaction for 18 months
ICCV publicly admitted that it accepted in the project only former students, current employees of the institutions that were partners in the project, and people the project team knew directly, but it argued that there was nothing wrong with that.
And, thus, despite our constant questions and requests for answers, nothing happened for about 18 months. The very few authorities that actually bothered to answer us – the ICCV and the Romanian Academy – rejected all our complaints as ungrounded.
In the meantime, I continued to document the case on my blog (mostly in Romanian). I also started receiving strange phone calls in the middle of the night and threats to being sued if I didn’t stop writing about the ICCV case.
Eventually, in November 2015, 18 months after our first complaint, the Management Authority for POSDRU (AMPOSDRU), of the Romanian Ministry of Education and Scientific Research, responded. In a 156 pages long report (in Romanian, .pdf), AMPOSDRU admitted that all our complaints were justified. It observed, for instance, discrimination, conflict of interests, it wrote that the evaluation process was not in accordance with the standards of the scientific quality or with the ethic standards. These and many other problems determined AMPOSDRU to decide that (in Romanian, .pdf) ,,the procedure of evaluation and selection is not viable, as it was not carried in conditions of transparency, it did not comply with the principles of fair competition, equal treatment and nondiscrimination of candidates, it did not take the measures necessary to prevent conflict of interests, and therefore, it did not support the best project proposals.”
However, by the time this report was made, the POSDRU project in question had been carried and completed, with the spending of 8 million lei (about 2 million Euros) from the state budget. By November 2015, ICCV and its partners had been reimbursed with over 1.5 million lei (through the POSDRU program) and they were expecting the reimbursement of the other over 6 million lei. However, once AMPOSDRU observed the ,,irregularities” that affected this project, the reimbursement was stopped and the ICCV and its partners were requested to repay the 1.5 million that had already been reimbursed to them.
Who’s to blame?
To my knowledge, this is the only measure that has been taken in this case, and, despite my (and others’) repeated complaints and requests, no administrative or other investigation was carried and no measure was taken.
I was officially told that no further investigation or measure was necessary (in Romanian, .pdf) since the reimbursement was stopped and the already reimbursed funds were to be recuperated from the beneficiary of the project. Thus, it seems that according to the Romanian authorities, it did not matter what happened. It seems that they did not want to know how something like that was possible and what one can do to prevent it from happening again. No one seems to want to say why the AMPOSDRU needed 18 months to respond to a complaint or to explain if the state budget money spent in this project will ever be recuperated.
Unofficially, I was often admonished by different functionaries that I was one of the reasons for which Romania cannot access EU funds more easily. I, of course, disagree. And I think that without our complaints and insistence into being given an answer, the “irregularities” of this project would have remained unobserved.
NOTE: This post was proposed as a Europe in My Region Blog Contest Entry, but was rejected.
 At the end of 2013, the decommitment targets for Romania were modified, the country being granted N+3 for two more years.