Athens Airport May04

 

DURING the last year, I have continued to fight fraud and corruption in the European Union. Along with my MEP colleagues Gabriele Stauner (Germany) and Freddy Blak (Denmark), and the editor of New Europe, Basil Coronakis, I have been working to uncover financial irregularities in the construction of the new Athens International Airport, a project largely funded by EU grants and loans, which opened three years ago at an alleged cost of 1.7 billion.

 

Spata airport, near Athens, is the third most expensive ever built and was constructed by a German company, Hochtief. While Hochtief only contributed 45% of the project's equity, the company was given management control of the airport for 30 years under monopoly conditions. EU taxpayers, through the Cohesion Fund, contributed 250 million of the claimed 2.4 billion euro airport cost and 997 million euros were lent by the EU's European Investment Bank, backed by a Greek government guarantee.

 

However, many questions remain unanswered with regards to the airport project:-

 

Why do the published figures for the airport's construction costs vary so wildly? Figures range from Hochtief's 878 million euros in 1992, to the European Commission's figures of 973 million (1996) and 1.8 billion (April, 2003) to the final figure of 2.4 billion also given by Hochtief in April 2003.

 

Why did Spata apparently cost double that of the new, similar-sized, Milan airport (Malpensa) despite offering a poorer infrastructure and fewer amenities?

 

Why did the EIB, which as rule finances up to 50 percent of the cost of infrastructure projects, in this case finance the airport with over 100 percent of the official cost?


Why did the Commission upgrade the status of the airport company controlled by Hochtief from that of a private corporation to that of a public authority in order to make it qualify for cohesion funding, even though this was in clear breach of Cohesion Fund rules and EC law?

 

Further investigation has also shown that the true construction cost is likely to have been significantly lower than any published estimate - possibly as low as 320 million euros. If this is the case, profits of nearly two billion euros would have been made on construction alone.

 

Since the beginning of last year, I have been forcing the European Commission to publish detailed accounts for this project to find answers to my questions. This has involved meetings and correspondence with the Commission's regional funding directorate, the EU Court of Auditors and with President of the Commission, Romano Prodi.

 

In May 2003, I was informed by Mr Prodi that he would not give access to any of the requested documents as "the contract contains economic and technical information and its disclosure would undermine the interests of the contractors". In July, I was promised that by October detailed accounts of the project would be available. I have yet to receive them.

 

After months of fighting, I have finally persuaded the European Parliament's Budgetary Control Committee to investigate this case and following last week's elections in Greece, Mr Karamanlis, the new Prime Minister, has also pledged a full investigation into the Spata airport project.

 

Rest assured, as one of the European Commission's fiercest critics, I will continue to push this case until I finally get the answers I have been seeking.