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25th Feb 2021

MEPs: Portugal 'risks undermining' trust in EU prosecutor

  • EU justice commissioner Dider Reynders (l) and Portugal's justice minister Francisca Van Dunem at a pre-Covid council meeting in Brussels (Photo: Council of the European Union)

MEPs quizzed the Portuguese justice minister on Tuesday (26 January) over Lisbon's push for a prosecutor to be appointed to the EU's prosecutor office (EPPO) contrary to the advice of a European expert panel.

Lawmakers on the joint meeting of the civil liberties and budget control committee warned that concerns over the appointment of the Portuguese prosecutor could undermine the new EU's prosecutors office.

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Belgium and Bulgaria also went against the expert panel's advice when last year the council of member states appointed the prosecutors to the new EU body. Each participating member state - 22 in total - gets to select one prosecutor for the body.

Last July, Portugal pushed through the nomination of José Guerra as its country's representative at the EPPO, while the European advisory panel favoured a different candidate, Ana Carla Almeida.

Belgian prosecutor Jean-Michel Verelst, who was the panel's recommendation but was not picked by the council for the job, has since launched a case at the European Court of Justice to annul this appointment.

Portugal's case has raised concerns among MEPs because the Lisbon government has sent a letter which contained errors to the council arguing for a candidate despite the experts' recommendation.

Dutch MEP Jeroen Lenaers of the European People's Party (EPP) said these errors "are more than regrettable administrative errors", as Portugal argued earlier, "they were very intentional, it seems", he added.

"The credibility of EPPO risks being undermined," Lenaers said.

Last week, the parliament's plenary also discussed the issue. The Portuguese minister for EU affairs Ana Paula Zacarias argued that member states are not legally bound by the expert panel's recommendation.

Portuguese MEP Isabel Santos from the Socialists and Democrats on Tuesday echoed that argument, saying EU law has not been broken in the process, and that MEPs should not call into question EPPO's credibility.

"Calling into question the EPPO is not in protecting the interest of the citizens, it is undermining confidence in these bodies and that means we all lose out," Spanish Socialist MEP Isabel Garcia Munos argued.

Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld rejected "allegations by the Socialists and Democrats that this is [...] an attack on EPPO".

"We are doing our job as a parliamentary watchdog," she said, arguing that council should make all documents public regarding the appointment of Belgian, Bulgarian and Portuguese prosecutors.

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 her country's magistrates, who preferred Guerra.

She admitted that mistakes had been made when arguing for Guerra, but that he was judged based on his qualifications and career.

Van Dunem said the council is open to cooperate with the parliament to clarify the issue but also argued that EPPO needs "stability" to do its work properly.

The documents have not yet been released to MEPs though, and in 't Veld said the parliament should go to court if MEPs do not get access to them.

Budget control committee chair, German MEP from the centre-right EPP Monika Hohlmeier pointed out that with Portugal chairing of the council and at the same time its ministers having to explain the Lisbon government's behaviour raises the question of conflict of interest.

She later argued on Twitter that Portugal should withdraw its prosecutor from EPPO.

For his part, justice commissioner Didier Reynders wanted to stay out of the controversy, saying the EU Commission is not part of the selection process.

Asked what happens if the ECJ sides with the Belgian prosecutor challenging the member states' decision, Reynders said if there is such a ruling, it will be binding, and the commission will "try to come with a remedy as soon as possible".

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