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27th Feb 2020

Controversial minister to oversee EU funds in Romania

  • Elena Udrea (c) has courted attention in Romanian media for her looks (Photo: elenaudrea.ro)

A glamourous former advisor to the Romanian president has been nominated as minister for regional development, in charge of billions of euros in EU aid to a country struggling with corruption and maladministration.

In a skyrocketing career, the 36-year-old Elena Udrea is currently minister of tourism in a caretaker government led by Romania's Emil Boc.

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Following Mr Boc's upcoming re-appointment as prime minister, Ms Udrea is to add the regional development portfolio to her tourism job, putting her in control of €3.7 billion from the EU budget for 2007 to 2013, for the sake of improving housing, infrastructure and tourism.

Seen as a protégé of Romanian President Traian Basescu, Ms Udrea was the subject of a parliamentary inquiry in September, which recommended opening a criminal investigation into the way she used public money to fund media campaigns.

Ms Udrea says the inquiry was politically-driven in order to damage Ms Basescu's re-election effort, while her office points out that the accusations were too weak to merit criminal charges.

The media inquiry is not the first time that the minister has been in the spotlight for corruption allegations, however.

Ms Udrea, who has posed for glossy lifestyle magazines in her underwear, is married to a Bucharest businessman who used to run a parking-lot monopoly in the city. She was appointed as Mr Basescu's special advisor soon after he was elected president in late 2004, but resigned from the post in November 2005 amid accusations of cronyism concerning her husband's business associates.

Her 2005 downfall was accelerated by a series of gaffes: On one occasion, during a TV show, she said that Norway was a presidential republic and a member of the EU.

Ms Udrea's appointment as minister in charge of EU regional funds has outraged a number of Romanian commentators and political rivals.

Mr Basescu is putting back "the same discredited ministers in key positions," Social Democrat leader Mircea Geoana, who narrowly lost the recent general elections, said on Monday (21 December).

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, an analyst with the Berlin-based Hertie School of Governance, told EUobserver: "To entrust Ms Udrea with the bulk of EU funds is simply scandalous ... The Romanian media repeatedly reported the very favourable public contracts her husband's company received in the last years and her privileged access to the president have made her a hugely controversial character."

Dan Tapalaga, a Bucharest-based journalist, criticised Ms Udrea's lack of technical expertise in dealing with her new role.

"Romania cannot afford to experiment with novices in key positions, we need someone who is an expert in local and regional governance, who knows what EU funds are about. Especially since Romania has been failing to implement a functional regional policy for years," he said.

Ms Udrea's office rejected claims that she lacks qualifications for the regional funding job, arguing that, as a minister for tourism, she was also responsible for overseeing EU-funded programs.

Commenting on the 2005 cronyism allegations, one of her staff told this website that: "Ms Udrea resigned four years ago from her duties as presidential advisor precisely in order to clarify this problem. This topic is no longer an issue."

The EU commission said it does not comment on individual appointments, but noted that Brussels has a "shared responsibility" with Romanian authorities to ensure that EU funds are spent correctly.

"The primary responsibility for selecting which projects can benefit from EU funding lies with member states. They have to demonstrate that each individual project meets all eligibilty requirements. If they fail to do this, the commission can suspend payments or demand re-payment of funding which has been wrongly claimed," Dennis Abbott, the spokesman for the regional policy commissioner, told EUobserver.

All projects which receive EU money must fully comply with community law in terms of transparent tender and public procurement rules, he added.

The EU commission has also launched a special monitoring mechanism on judicial reform and combatting of high-level corruption in Romania following its accession in 2007. The mechanism, which also applies to Bulgaria, was recently extended for an unlimited period of time.

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