The EU's new Public Prosecutor Laura Kövesi has joined MEPs in voicing concern about Slovenia’s commitment to the fledgling office.
Kövesi will head a team of 22 European ‘delegated prosecutors” drawn from each of the 22 participating Member States, whose job will be to investigate, prosecute and bring cases to court.
Slovenia, though, has come under the spotlight because its two nominations for delegated prosecutors were cancelled on what MEPs called “unclear grounds” by the Slovenian government.
The decision has led to suggestions of possible political interference in the process by the Slovenian government.
The EU says the appointment of its first ever dedicated chief prosecutor (EPPO) underlines its determination to fight cross-border VAT fraud and crime, said to total over €10bn each year.
But the launch of the office last week was partly overshadowed by questions about Slovenia.
“The manifest lack of sincere cooperation of the Slovenian authorities with the EPPO seriously undermines the trust in the effective functioning of the management and control systems for EU funds in Slovenia" New EU Public Prosecutor Laura Kövesi
These were led by Kövesi herself, who accused Slovenia of “lacking cooperation.”
Kövesi is no stranger to controversy. She is a former chief prosecutor of Romania's National Anticorruption Directorate, a position she held from 2013 until she was fired on the order of Justice Minister Tudorel Toader in July 2018.
Kövesi, who will be based in Luxembourg, said, "The EPPO has been created to improve the level of protection of the financial interests of the EU. We haven’t been set up to allow anyone to put cases in a drawer.
“The EPPO can start operations without Slovenian European Delegated Prosecutors. But this means that the level of protection of the financial interests of the EU will decrease in Slovenia. You cannot efficiently investigate all the suspicions of fraud without European Delegated Prosecutors."
She went on, "Moreover, the European Delegated Prosecutors in Slovenia have to be considered as a key instance in the overall architecture, ensuring proper and complete supervision of bodies responsible for the management and control of Union funds.”
She added, “The manifest lack of sincere cooperation of the Slovenian authorities with the EPPO seriously undermines the trust in the effective functioning of the management and control systems for EU funds in Slovenia."
Further concern was voiced by MEPs from the European Parliament’s Renew Europe.
"Renew Europe expresses its concerns about the two nominations for the Slovenian European Delegated Prosecutors that was cancelled on unclear grounds… by the Slovenian government. It is of the utmost importance that the prosecutors are appointed swiftly and without any political interference” Ramona Strugariu MEP
Romanian MEP Ramona Strugariu, a member of Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, welcomed the new office but added, “At the same time, Renew Europe expresses its concerns about the two nominations for the Slovenian European Delegated Prosecutors that was cancelled on unclear grounds… by the Slovenian government.”
"It is of the utmost importance that the prosecutors are appointed swiftly and without any political interference.”
No one from the Slovenian government was immediately available for comment but, speaking at a press conference in parliament last week, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša defended his government's position, rejecting suggestions of political interference in the choice of prosecutors.
Slovenia takes over the rotating presidency of the EU on 1 July.
European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova and Commissioner Johannes Hahn, speaking last week, welcomed the new office, saying it “opens a new chapter in fighting cross-border crime.”
The EU officials, said, “The first supranational prosecution service is launching its operations to protect the EU taxpayer’s money, competent to investigate and prosecute crimes like money laundering, corruption and cross-border VAT fraud.”
In 2019 alone, Member States reported fraud affecting €460m of the EU budget.
A Commission spokesman said, “Such fraudulent activities have a direct impact on people's everyday lives, inflicting serious economic damage. This has to stop, all the more so because COVID-19 has deeply challenged our economies and we need every euro for the recovery.”
Currently, only national authorities can investigate and prosecute fraud against the EU budget in their respective countries.
“The EPPO will open a new front in the battle against fraud and corruption of EU funds. I trust that Laura Kövesi will fearlessly take on the organised criminals and corrupt politicians who seek to exploit EU taxpayer's money for their own ends. Tough questions should be directed to those politicians who continue to try to undermine the operation of the EPPO in their own member state” Renew Europe Group leader in the European Parliament, Dacian Cioloș MEP
The European Public Prosecutor's Office aims to strengthen the protection of the budget of the EU and will importantly also oversee implementation of the €750bn NextGenerationEU, the fund which aims to boost EU economies after the pandemic.
The newly created EU body is fully independent and will prosecute and bring the suspected perpetrators of crimes to justice in the 22 participating member states. Sweden has also expressed its interest and is planning to join the EPPO in 2022.
Renew Europe Group leader in the European Parliament, Dacian Cioloș hailed what he called a “ground-breaking tool” to tackle corruption and fraud, adding, “The launch of the EPPO is a truly historic moment for the European Union that we have long campaigned for.”
“The EPPO will open a new front in the battle against fraud and corruption of EU funds. I trust that Laura Kövesi will fearlessly take on the organised criminals and corrupt politicians who seek to exploit EU taxpayer's money for their own ends.”
Cioloș added, “Tough questions should be directed to those politicians who continue to try to undermine the operation of the EPPO in their own member state.”
Kövesi gained a reputation as a tough anti-graft crusader in Romania before the government sacked her.
Last May, the European Court of Human Rights said that she was wrongly removed from her job in 2018. The decision was seen as a landmark ruling against political interference in the judiciary.
The court said Kövesi’s dismissal in 2018 had “defeated the very purpose of maintaining judicial independence” and must have had “a chilling effect” on the ability of magistrates to engage in public debate on legislative reforms.
During Kövesi’s five years at its helm, the anti-corruption agency secured convictions of mayors, lawmakers and ministers across party lines, exposing conflicts of interest and abuse of power in one of the EU’s most corrupt states.
At the time, Kövesi said, “We all know my dismissal was part of a campaign to intimidate the judicial system, in an attempt to discourage the fight against corruption.”
EU countries had previously endorsed France’s candidate Jean-Francois Bohnert for the job but this triggered criticism from MEPs and his nomination was shelved.