23rd Jan 2022

MEPs chide Portugal and Council in EU prosecutor dispute

  • Spanish MEP Esteban González Pons urged the EU Commission to investigate the case (Photo: European Parliament)

MEPs scolded Portugal on Wednesday evening (20 January) for pushing through the appointment of a prosecutor to the EU prosecutor's office (EPPO) - despite a different recommendation from a European advisory panel.

Key MEPs also chided member states for agreeing to the Portuguese government's push, which several lawmakers argued was misleading and had political motives.

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  • Portugal's state secretary for EU affairs Ana Paula Zacaria argued that member states are not bound by law to follow the experts' recommendation (Photo: European Parliament)

Legislators also criticised Belgium and Bulgaria for going against the expert panel's advice.

"The Portuguese government lied to the Council [of member states] about the qualification of one of the candidates for the EPPO. And the result of that lie was born a decision that should never have occurred", centre-right European People's Party MEP Esteban González Pons said, leading the charge.

In July, Portugal pushed through the nomination of José Guerra as the country's representative at the EPPO, despite the recommendation of a European advisory panel, which had favoured a different candidate, Ana Carla Almeida.

The council of member states, which need to appoint the prosecutors, is not bound by law to follow the selection panel's recommendations.

The Belgian and Bulgarian prosecutors who were appointed had also not been the experts' first pick.

Belgian prosecutor Jean-Michel Verelst, who was the panel's recommendation, but did not get the job, launched a case at the European Court of Justice, calling for the annulment of the council's decision.

In the case of Portugal, criticism intensified against Lisbon after it emerged that the Portuguese government sent a letter to the council, arguing for Guerra, which contained errors exaggerating his role in the Portuguese judiciary.

Lisbon argued that the errors were unfortunate mistakes that did not weigh into the council's decision-making.

Portugal's state secretary for EU affairs, Ana Paula Zacarias, who represented the council in the parliamentary debate (as Portugal currently holds the council presidency), argued that member states used their discretionary power, granted by law, when they chose the three candidates in spite of the panel's recommendations.

Pons, on the other hand, again called on the EU Commission to investigate the issue, which he said casts a "shadow" over both the EPPO and the Portuguese EU presidency.

"I don't know what is worse, the excuse of the clerical error, or the theory that this is some sort of anti-Portuguese conspiracy to which prime minister [António] Costa has subscribed to," Pons said.

Socialist MEP Isabel Santos, who hails from Costa's party, had said in the debate that "this is a campaign of disinformation against Portugal".

She claimed its only aim was to "undermine" the Portuguese EU presidency and the EPPO itself.

Santos argued that Guerra was backed as the first choice by the selection panel of the public prosecutors in Portugal, which is an independent body, and the government followed its advice.

Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld from the liberal Renew Europe group called on the council to commit not to deviate from the expert panel's recommendations to avoid any similar situation.

"What other objectives could you have in deviating from the recommendation other than, I don't know, creating the jobs for the boys," she said.

"There is absolutely no reason why the council should deviate from that recommendation, because that's what we have the panel is for. If you wanted to choose the best person, all the council had to do was to follow the recommendation," in 't Veld argued

She called the council's move "completely irresponsible" and that it "jeopardised" the functioning of the EPPO.

German Green MEP Daniel Freund said the council seemed to be working against the success of the EPPO by not providing enough funding, and interfering with the selections of prosecutors.

On Thursday (21 January), MEP Monika Hohlmeier, who chairs the budget control committee, in a letter to Portugal's EU ambassador invited the Portuguese justice minister to the committee's meeting on 26 January to answer questions on the nomination.

The committee meeting will discuss getting EPPO off the ground, and EU chief prosecutor Laura Kövesi and EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders are expected to be present.

Planted trouble

The EPPO was set up to prosecute misuse of EU funds, with the participation of 22 member states. It is led by Romanian anti-corruption judge Laura Kövesi.

Her appointment as the office's chief prosecutor in 2019 already exposed the political landmines in the selection process.

Kövesi was backed by the expert panel and the European parliament but - amid lobbying from the Romanian government against Kövesi - member states initially picked a French candidate as their choice.

After negotiations between the council and parliament, Kövesi eventually emerged as the EU's first chief prosecutor.

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Portuguese justice minister Francisca Van Dunem, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, argued that the Lisbon government was only following the advice of the country's magistrates when pushing for its candidate.

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