Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Romanian candidate faces battle for EU prosecutor job

  • Romania's PM Dancila Viorica welcomes EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker at the start of her country's EU presidency (Photo: European Commission)

The European Parliament will hear candidates on Tuesday (26 February) for the EU's new top prosecutor job, amid ongoing demonstrations in Romania against what protesters see as the Bucharest government's latest efforts to rein in prosecutors and curb the rule of law.

At the centre of the hearing is Romania's Laura Codruta Kovesi, a former top anti-corruption prosecutor, who was forced out of office by the current Socialist-led government last July, which accused her of abusing her powers and damaging Romania's image abroad.

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  • Laura Codruta Kovesi's tenure as a prosecutor in Romania was praised by the EU (Photo: Libertatea)

Bucharest, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, has been actively campaigning against Kovesi - a highly unusual move in Brussels, where member states tend to push their citizens to get into top positions.

Romania's justice minister, Tudorel Toader, who initiated Kovesi's removal last year, earlier this month sent a letter to fellow EU ministers painting a damning picture of a prosecutor out of control.

During Kovesi's five-year tenure at the helm of Romania's National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), hundreds of officials and politicians had been convicted for high-level graft, which irked the political ruling class but earned her praise from the EU.

Kovesi, 45, is now being investigated by a newly-formed agency on allegations of abuse of office, bribery and perjury in Romania. Several MEPs expressed dismay at Romanian authorities' attempt to block Kovesi's candidacy.

Last November, in its yearly monitoring of Romania's rule of law, the EU commission warned Romania against rolling back achievements in the anti-corruption fight, and putting pressure on the anti-graft office.

One of the planned measures that the commission has repeatedly warned against is a proposal by justice minister Toader to allow politicians and others convicted of corruption since 2014 to challenge the verdicts, essentially meaning an amnesty.

Such legislation would benefit Liviu Dragnea, the all-powerful leader of the ruling Social Democrat Party who was sentenced last year to three and a half years in prison for abuse of office. Kovesi's agency was key in the prosecution.

Dragnea is barred from serving as prime minister for an earlier case of election fraud.

In the latest round of protests in Romania, demonstrators went to the streets over the weekend against an emergency decree they say will further undermine anti-corruption efforts, while prosecutors and judges vowed to strike in protest at the measures.

Defending EU funds

The EU parliament's civil liberties and budget control committee on Tuesday will hear from the three candidates who run for the chief EU prosecutor's office.

The aim of the EU's new chief prosecutor is to fight cross-border financial crime more efficiently and oversee the spending of EU money.

The office will be independent of EU and national authorities, making it a powerful position - especially with regards to countries where the government has been accused of misusing EU funds.

It will have the right to investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment crimes against the EU budget, such as fraud, corruption or serious cross-border VAT fraud.

The European Public Prosecutor's Office was agreed on by member states in June 2017 with 20 countries agreeing to participate. Eventually, the Netherlands and Malta also joined in 2018.

It is planned to be operational by the end of 2020.

Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Sweden, and the UK decided not to join the new office.

After Tuesday's hearing it is yet unclear how the parliament will choose its favourite for the position: whether it would be coordinators, top party politicians from the committee or the entire committee that will vote.

That will be decided on Tuesday, according to the parliament's press service.

Later, either the parliament's leadership or the entire plenary will have to back up the decision. If it is a different person than the number one candidate favoured by member states, then the parliament and the countries' officials will have to enter into negotiations.

Last week, despite Kovesi being the number one candidate of the expert "selection" panel, EU ambassadors voted to endorse Jean-Francois Bohnert, from France, while Kovesi and a German candidate, Andres Ritter, received the same number of votes in the second place.

An EU diplomat suggested that Kovesi's nomination has become over-politicised, which works against her.

However, the official, who wanted to remain anonymous but is familiar with the discussion among member states, said that Romania's letter had been counterproductive in several capitals and only ignited support for Kovesi.

But the official added that it does hinder Kovesi's prospects that her country's government is not actively campaigning for her, but against her.

The first person who fills in a new position often sets the tone and style for the EU office itself.

The EU could decide to name Kovesi and send a strong signal to countries where top politicians are accused of misappropriating EU funds, such as Romania itself, but it could also alienate countries from the very beginning with such a controversial and bellicose prosecutor.

However, if the EU backs down from supporting Kovesi, that might embolden Romania's ruling party and other governments that bullying does work in the EU.

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