EU's Kosovo mission struggles for credibility after smuggling incident
In a bid to boost its credibility, the EU's justice and police mission in Kosovo has started high-level corruption cases against local officials and fired 16 of its own gendarmes who were caught smuggling cigarettes and alcohol across the border.
"Our guiding principle is that no-one is above the law and we will continue to apply that," Eulex head of mission Yves de Kermabon told MEPs during a hearing on Thursday (3 June).
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He highlighted the importance of the searches conducted by Eulex prosecutors on 26 April on the premises of the transport ministry in Pristina, with the minister himself suspected of money laundering, abuse of public office and corruption.
The 2,800 strong police and justice mission, deployed by the EU after Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, has been criticised in the past for not showing enough muscle against corrupt officials and organised crime – one of its core functions.
"The searches are only the beginning. Such activities lay at the core of the Eulex mandate," Mr de Kermabon said.
But he also warned against expecting convictions too soon, as the judicial processes take time, especially in Kosovo where judges have to work with three legal systems, depending on when the crimes were committed - the Yugoslav, the Serbian and the Kosovar one.
"We have major holes in the mission and are still lacking personnel. But the Kosovo police is working pretty well and maybe ultimately at some point we'll be able to reduce the police mission. The key component is the justice mission," he stressed.
In an embarrassing episode just a week prior to the anti-graft sweep, 16 Romanian gendarmes deployed to the Eulex unit in Mitrovica, in the northern part of Kosovo, were caught smuggling cigarettes and alcohol over the border as they were going home for vacation.
They have been meanwhile sent back to the country and an investigation has been launched, including into the higher chain of command of the Romanian unit.
"We reacted immediately very strongly and said we cannot accept this coming from a member of the EU. That is a question of credibility for Eulex and the EU as a whole," Mr de Kermabon told journalists after the hearing.
It is, however, up to member states to follow up on such cases in their own judicial systems, he stressed.
The 16 gendarmes were decorated in March by the Romanian government for their "professionalism" in carrying out their duties, which include crowd management, protection of VIPs and escorting valuable or explosive items.
The European Parliament will look into the matter and press Bucharest for a judicial investigation, so as to show that the EU is not practising double standards, Austrian Green MEP Ulrike Lunacek, the rapporteur for Kosovo told this website.
"Some people may link the fact that the EU is demanding rule of law and fight against corruption in Kosovo, but member states are not doing that if something happens. It is important that Romania shows with these people caught smuggling that there will be due legal process," she said.
According to Ms Lunacek, Bucharest should be particularly interested in showing that it follows up on such cases, after it failed to produce any sanctions against another of its gendarmes unit, responsible for the death of two people in 2007, during clashes with demonstrators in Pristina. At that time, the Romanian gendarmes were part of the UN peacekeeping mission, Unmik.
"Eulex is needed, but it is important that they deliver accordingly to the expectations people have. They will be judged, in the eyes of the Kosovo public, if they manage to do what the Kosovo authorities don't, really going against the big fish, not only petty corruption. And member states need to uphold the same standards when it comes to their own citizens, if they are guilty of corruption or other crimes," she concluded.