Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

MEPs to debate Portugal's EU prosecutor controversy

  • Portuguese premier António Costa (l) denied political interference and said his government followed the law (Photo: Council of the European Union)

MEPs will hold a debate next Wednesday (13 January) on the controversial appointment of the Portuguese prosecutor to the European Union prosecutor's office.

The debate comes at a sensitive time after the country kicked off its EU presidency earlier this month. Prime minister António Costa will also present Portugal's priorities to MEPs next Wednesday.

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Lawmakers from the leading centre-right EPP and liberal Renew groups have been calling on Lisbon to clarify the appointment of José Guerra as the country's representative at the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO), which they suspect was a politically motivated move.

The EPPO was set up to prosecute misuse of EU funds, with the participation of 22 member states.

In July, Portugal pushed through the nomination of Guerra, despite the recommendation of a European 'advisory panel', which had favoured another Portuguese candidate, Ana Carla Almeida.

At the time, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria and Estonia voiced concerns about going against the independent panel's advice, but the council of member states is not bound by law to follow the panel's recommendations.

The criticism intensified in Portugal after media reported that the Portuguese government sent a letter to the EU council, arguing for Guerra, which contained three errors exaggerating Guerra's role in the Portuguese judiciary.

Portuguese justice minister Francisca Van Dunem admitted the mistakes, but said the letter's arguments had not been decisive in Guerra getting the position.

However, Portuguese media later reported on another council document, which showed that Lisbon's arguments had, in fact, been taken into account.

The Portuguese government claimed that the opposition is whipping up a political storm designed to spoil the country's EU presidency.

The opposition argues that the government pushed for Guerra because of his ties to Costa and the Socialist government.

The Renew group leader, Romanan liberal MEP Dacian Cioloș, last Sunday, sent a letter to Costa asking him to clarify publicly whether there had been political interference in the appointment.

He also did not rule out calling for an independent inquiry into the matter.

"If the reports are correct, then the council [of member states] has chosen to appoint a candidate going against the recommendation of the independent selection panel possibly based on false information and for political reasons," Renew group leader, MEP Dacian Ciolos said in a statement on Monday (11 January).

"In doing so, the council has potentially jeopardised the functioning of the EPPO and undermined the European Public Prosecutor. This sets a dangerous and unacceptable precedent for Renew Europe," he added.

In his response, dated Tuesday (12 January), Costa argued that Guerra was the most qualified candidate, according to the Portuguese judicial authorities tasked with nominating candidates, and the Portuguese government had to follow their recommendation.

Renew's call for clarity came after key MEPs from the centre-right EPP - whose Portuguese delegation is now in opposition at the national level - also called on EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to look into the issue.

"The behaviour of the Portuguese justice minister risks the independence and credibility of the European Public Prosecutor's Office," German MEP Monika Hohlmeier, who heads the budget control committee in parliament, said in a statement last week.

She called on Lisbon to withdraw Guerra.

'Strikes a blow'

The Portuguese controversy could undermine the credibility of the EPPO, which is led by Romanian anti-corruption judge Laura Kövesi.

Kövesi was appointed in 2019 despite opposition from Romania, thanks partly to the parliament's political push.

The EU prosecutor's office is seen as a guarantor of going after fraud in EU funds even if the national government might be reluctant to do so, but it was been snubbed by several member states already at its inception.

And Portugal is not the only participating country which did not accept the 'advisory panel' decision: Belgium and Bulgaria stuck to their preferred candidates too, despite the panel's different recommendation.

In an open letter EU law experts warned last year, that the move to ignore the independent panel's guidance "strikes a blow at the credibility of the independence of the EPPO and the rule of law in the European Union".

"Not following the recommendations seriously jeopardises and undermines the functioning of this office," Dutch Renew MEP Sophie in't Veld also said in a statement last week.

"That, however, is exactly what the EU] council is doing, by opting for candidates preferred by the Belgian, Portuguese, and Bulgarian governments. The council must commit to independence for EPPO and refrain from politically motivated deviations from the recommendation of the independent selection panel," in't Veld added.

"This is not a Portuguese matter, it is a European matter," centre-right Portuguese MEP Paulo Rangel said.

New EU public prosecutor has four staff for 3,000 cases

Laura Kovesi who heads the new European Public Prosecutor's Office, tasked to tackle fraud linked to VAT, money laundering, and corruption across the EU, warned she is dangerously understaffed and underfunded.

EU backs setting up prosecutor's office

Heads of state and government have agreed to allow a core group of EU states to set up a European Public Prosecutor Office to probe VAT fraud and crimes against the EU budget.

Romanian prosecutor fights back critics for EU top job

The European Parliament's budget control committee backs Laura Codruta Kovesi for the EU chief prosecutor post after Tuesday's hearing, despite being the second-favourite of member states. The main committee in the case will vote on Wednesday.

MEPs chide Portugal and Council in EU prosecutor dispute

The Belgian and Bulgarian prosecutors who were appointed had also not been the experts' first choice. Belgian prosecutor Jean-Michel Verelst has challenged the council's decision at the European Court of Justice.

Slovenia causing headaches for new EU anti-graft office

Slovenia was supposed to nominate a delegated prosecutor for the new European Public Prosecutor Office, in charge of cracking down on corruption of EU funds. Ljubljana finalised procedures in December but has yet to send nominations, causing headaches.

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