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11th Apr 2021

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

  • EPPO's Laura Kovesi is set to tackle fraud across the EU but says she is understaffed and underfunded (Photo: EUobserver)

The EU's new public prosecutor office, set to launch later this year, has just four staff to tackle 3,000 cases in an effort to claw-back stolen funds.

Known as the European Public Prosecutors Office (EPPO), the Luxembourg-based institution will carry out criminal investigations into suspected fraud, which siphons billions every year from the taxpayer and the EU budget. It will also be able to prosecute.

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But Laura Kovesi, the 46-year old Romanian prosecutor with a strong reputation for cracking down on corruption and who is leading the office, says the new institution is understaffed and underfunded given it will have many more cases than previously thought.

Speaking to EU lawmakers on Thursday (6 February) in Brussels, Kovesi, has asked the European Commission to reconsider the annual budget to match the EPPO's new reality.

"My preliminary estimate makes the legislative financial framework under which the EPPO regulation has been adopted obsolete," she said.

Overseeing a total staff of 29 people in the head office in Luxembourg, Kovesi revealed that 24 of them work in IT and human resources. Another works on budget issues.

With only four people to sift through 3,000 cases, Kovesi said the EPPO is facing an insurmountable task that risks burying her ambitions to possibly recover billions of stolen EU funds.

"It is very difficult to register, to analyse 3,000 cases with only four members of the staff," she said, noting an additional 2,000 new cases are expected every year up from the initial estimate of 1,000.

Kovesi obtained the 3,000 figure after asking the 22 EU participating states late last year to send her cases that may fall under her jurisdiction. Some have yet to send the data, meaning the 3,000 caseload is likely to increase further.

€60bn in VAT fraud alone

And while Kovesi wouldn't go into the details of the cases themselves, she pointed out that up to €60bn is lost each year to cross-border VAT fraud alone.

Other big ticket items under her watch will also likely include the billions of EU farm subsidies lost to wealthy politicians, landowners and corporate conglomerates as recently revealed by a New York Times investigation.

Hungary, Poland, Sweden have so far refused to subscribe to the EPPO - while Denmark and Ireland have special opt-outs. The remaining 22 have all agreed although some now appear to be scaling back the ambitions of the new office.

Among the problems, Kovesi noted, was that the so-called 'delegated prosecutors' in the EU states linked to the EPPO may now end up being just part-time.

"I have been a prosecutor for many years but I am not aware of the existence anywhere in the world of a quarter of a prosecutor? How should a part-time European delegated prosecutor even work in practice?" she said.

MEPs had widely voiced support for Kovesi, urging the commission and EU states to ensure she is fully funded and equipped.

Jeers

The commission, however, appeared reluctant when pressed on the issues raised by Kovesi and instead read out a prepared statement from a subordinate who was in no position to answer detailed questions.

"The commission will look at the needs of the EPPO with the objective of having the institution up and running this year," said the EU commission official, triggering a round of jeers from the MEPs.

Monika Hohlmeier, a German centre-right MEP chairing the meeting, described the commission's response as unacceptable.

"I want a statement to say you won't accept part-time prosecutors and that you are going to find out how many posts they need," she said.

But the commission official refused, noting he was not in charge of the file, and only further adding to the impression that Kovesi's concerns were not being taken seriously.

Kovesi is set to meet European commissioners Didier Reynders and Johannes Hahn later this month.

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.

Opinion

Stop the misuse of EU funds under new budget

It is tempting to shun the issue of the misuse of EU funds altogether, as it might play into the hands of eurosceptics. But keeping silent pre-empts the healthy debate that is so vital to a genuine European democracy.

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.

Romania abused rights of EU's top prosecutor, court finds

Romania violated the rights of its former anti-corruption chief Laura Codruta Kovesi when they fired hire. The judgement issued by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg follows a long catalogue of high-level corruption in Romania.

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