Tuesday

16th Aug 2022

Interview

EU prosecutor opened almost 1,000 investigations in first year

  • Laura Kövesi led Romania's anti-corruption efforts before spearheading the new EU office in Luxembourg (Photo: European Commission)
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She brought ex-prime ministers, former ministers, MPs, and mayors to justice in Romania.

But Laura Kövesi says being the EU's first-ever chief prosecutor is the most challenging job she ever had.

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"We had to build from scratch," she said of her office's first year in an interview with a group of Brussels-based journalists.

Her office had already proved its added value, especially in cross-border investigations and fighting organised crime, Kövesi argued.

The EU's prosecutors office had received over 4,000 crime reports, opened 929 investigations, handed down 28 indictments, and secured four convictions in its first year of operation.

It secured the freezing orders of €259m in assets — over four times the size of its annual budget.

"Everyone expected it to start step-by-step, but we started with supersonic speed in my view," the former Romanian prosecutor said, who was so feared by the political elite in her country that Bucharest lobbied against her appointment in 2019.

Kövesi served as Romania's chief prosecutor at the anti-corruption directorate from 2013 until she was forced out from her office in 2018, by the then justice minister.

The 49-year-old spearheads the first EU chief prosecutor office which launched exactly a year ago on 1 June.

The European Public Prosecutor's Office's (EPPO) task is to protect the EU's financial interests by fighting cross-border VAT fraud, money laundering, and corruption.

Kövesi praised her team of prosecutors, many of them joined the office out of conviction, she said.

"Most of the colleagues had to leave their comfort zone, it was a real adventure," she added.

The main office in Luxembourg has 22 European prosecutors who will oversee cases from member states and approve main decisions in investigations, such as indictments.

EPPO also has a network of 140 European delegated prosecutors sitting in member states' capitals, but working for the Luxembourg office embedded in their national criminal code.

The new setup has enabled EU prosecutors to more effectively and quickly get documents, information, or conduct house searches, if they found cross-border issues.

Malta issues

However, the level of enthusiasm varies greatly among member states.

Malta has not launched any investigations, according to EPPO's annual report published in March.

In April, Kövesi told to MEPs that Malta is only paying lip service in its efforts to crack down on EU fraud and corruption.

"Some police officers said it is not their job to detect crime. […] It is about mentality, it is about will," Kövesi said without naming Malta.

"Some member states do not send cases to us, either they don't detect them, or they don't want to send them to us," she said, adding that "statistics show the will of authorities to fight the corruption".

Italy, Bulgaria, Romania and Germany had opened the most number of investigations.

The cases EPP deals with come from private sources, local police, prosecutors, the EU's anti-fraud agency, Olaf, or EU auditors.

Not joining or not cooperating

Five member states did not join the prosecutors office: Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, and Sweden.

Hungary has a working agreement with EPPO, and Kövesi said the cooperation has been smooth.

However, Poland has so far refused to cooperate.

Warsaw has not yet passed legislation underpinning the mutual cooperation. Kövesi noted that member states had five years to pass necessary legislation to be able to work with EU prosecutors.

Poland is involved in the highest number of cases among the non-participating EU countries, but has refused to cooperate with EU prosecutors in all 23 cases.

Kövesi also had run-ins with the Slovenian government in the last year.

Ljubljana first withdrew the nomination of delegated prosecutors, then tried to attempt to change the criminal code which would have an impact on the local functioning of the EPPO.

The 22 participating member states have very different mentalities, each with their different judiciary systems.

"There are no 'clean' countries, no one will convince me of countries with no cases," she said.

"I'm suspicious, because I am a prosecutor," Kövesi added.

EU chief prosecutor accuses Slovenia of interference

Europe's chief prosecutor Laura Kövesi warned that the EU budget might not be safe because Slovenia continues to delay naming delegated prosecutors to the agency. "We have to work as if our office does not exist in Slovenia," she said.

Green crime-fighting boss urgently required, key MEP says

The European Parliament approved last week a non-binding resolution on illegal logging, calling to extend the EU public prosecutor's mandate to also cover environmental crime. The lead MEP on the file has called for urgent implementation.

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