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20th Jan 2020

EU prosecutor likely to expand powers

  • The EU wide public prosecutor is set to launch in January 2015 (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

A top EU official on Thursday (28 November) said the future EU-wide public prosecutor may expand into other domains aside from combatting fraud.

“If this EPPO [European Public Prosecutor Office] starts working well, [it] will possibly, probably expand to other competences, to the others crimes, which are by nature transnational,” Giovanni Kessler, head of the EU anti-fraud office Olaf, told reporters in Brussels.

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He said such areas are broadly restricted to “serious offences with a cross-border dimension”. It could include terrorism, human trafficking, and organised crime.

Kessler noted officials are for the moment more focused on setting up the office in an effort to tackle fraud committed against the EU budget.

Conservative estimates suggest some €500 million is stolen every year from the EU coffer.

The European Commission, which launched the legislative proposal in July, says the actual amount of fraud is significantly higher.

The office will have the power to launch its own investigations and prosecute people in any member state that signs up.

It will be able to search people’s homes, probe their computers, seize objects, intercept telephone conversations, and freeze financial transactions.

A minimum of nine member states is needed for it to become a reality, with the commission saying it is certain to get enough.

But MPs in some national parliaments, like the Netherlands and Sweden, are deeply opposed.

The United Kingdom and Ireland are not concerned because they opted out from the beginning. Denmark will also not join.

The idea, says the commission, is to have more uniform crime fighting standards throughout the bloc, integrated into national law systems.

Specific details are being discussed by a group of some 75 public prosecutors from all 28 member states in a two-day conference currently taking place in Brussels.

The basic structure involves a chief prosecutor with deputies at a central office at the European level. A delegated prosecutor, tasked to carry out EU orders, will be stationed in each of the participating member states.

There are some unknowns.

A commission official said it is possible the EU prosecutor will be able to investigate and prosecute offences alone, without any involvement from member states.

“It is another point of discussion that I’m sure we’ll find a solution for,” he noted.

Germany’s general prosecutor is said to favour the office, but is opposed to it having any exclusive functions.

Supporters say the office will be independent and that national courts will be able to review and challenge the prosecutor.

They note national prosecutors are either not interested or unable to launch full-blown investigations into EU financial matters because they are too complex, too long, and most often spread across several countries.

Kessler says a case can take years because of the constraints.

“They are investigating in Belgium but have to ask for a bank account in Germany, a telephone tapping in France, a house search in Austria, it last years,” he noted.

But detractors say the whole idea is an attempt to strip away core national sovereignty rights.

They say the EU's joint judicial authority, Eurojust, is enough, even though the agency is limited to a co-ordinating role.

Fourteen national parliamentary chambers in 11 member states earlier this month also asked the commission to review its proposal and got enough votes to launch a so-called “yellow card” procedure.

The card forces the commission to take a second look at the proposal and decide whether to maintain, amend or withdraw it and explain why.

The Brussels-executive delivered its verdict on Wednesday.

It said the various concerns put forward by the chambers, including stripping away national powers, is not enough for them to shelve the EPPO.

Belgian public prosecutor Cedric Visart de Bocarme, who favours the office, says it means some member states will have to transfer a part of their public powers towards the new EU institution.

“It is both revolutionary and modern, it is revolutionary because we will create for the first time, a new European judicial system, who is prosecutor and will launch investigations,” he noted.

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