Speaking in Parliament, Kövesi said that one particular concern was that the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) she leads will have only “part-time” prosecutors.
“This simply is not adequate,” she declared.
Despite only taking up office recently, the Romanian clearly cast doubt on the EPPO’s short-term future.
The EPPO is designed to put the EU at the forefront in the battle against fraud and corruption affecting the EU budget. The EU lost just under €9 billion to tax fraud during 2002-2016, a report by the European Court of Auditors said earlier this year.
The EPPO, based in Luxembourg, will be geared towards investigating and pressing criminal charges in cases crossing the EU’s internal borders, particularly those affecting the budget since November 2017. Twenty-two of the EU’s 28 Member States are participating so far.
Addressing a meeting of Parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, Kövesi complained about the existence of part-time prosecutors at the EPPO. She said this was “inadequate” to tackle its caseload, including a “backlog” of 3,000 cases.
She told MEPs, “We need more resources and more staff.”
“I have never seen anything such as a part-time prosecutor. That is why I hope Member States will agree to have only full prosecutors because this is very necessary if we are to do the job efficiently” Laura Kövesi
She told the meeting, “In all my time as a prosecutor in Romania I have never seen anything such as a part-time prosecutor. That is why I hope Member States will agree to have only full prosecutors because this is very necessary if we are to do the job efficiently.”
She warned, “If these issues are not solved we cannot start our activities. There is a huge risk they will be blocked.”
Kövesi, the EU’s first ever fraud prosecutor, said the EPPO currently had 29 staff members plus “22 and a half” European prosecutors. The half was a reference to one prosecutor who will work part-time.
She said, “When I took up this job in November I was regularly asked what resources we will need in the first year.
“My answer is that we have to get moving and that the budget needs to be significantly increased for 2020.”
Kövesi told members this was the message she will convey to EU commissioners Didier Reynders and Johannes Hahn when she meets them to discuss the EPPO on 7 February.
She told the committee, “The initial assumption was that EPPO would reach cruising speed by 2023 and be able to handle 100,000 investigations a year but this assumption has proved wrong because there are presently significant discrepancies (in staffing and the budget).”
“If we don’t fight the issue of serious cross-border crime and fraud here at EU level then how can we expect citizens to follow any rules?” Birgit Sippel MEP
“In our first year we are expected to be able to open at least 2,000 new cases and also be able to deal with a backlog of cases. My very conservative estimate is that EPPO staff have to sift through a backlog of 3,000 cases and, given the budgetary constraints, we cannot achieve all of this with just 22 and a half prosecutors and 29 staff in the central office as is currently planned.”
She added, “I have been a prosecutor for many years and if we want to do a serious job, show the added value of the EPPO and demonstrate that it is truly independent we must have only full-time prosecutors.
“We have to ask: Do we want an EPPO just to say we have it or do we want it to be a truly independent and efficient institution?”
Clearly frustrated at the lack of resources, she went on, “Citizens will look at the EPPO as a sharp tool in the defence of the rule of law and addressing cross border crime. I want it to be a centre of excellence and a game changer in the fight against serious crime so, yes, it is worth investing in the EPPO. But there needs to be a serious revision of its budget.”
German Socialist Birgit Sippel was among several committee members who agreed on the need for the EPPO to have sufficient staff and funding, adding, “If we don’t fight the issue of serious cross-border crime and fraud here at EU level then how can we expect citizens to follow any rules? I also agree that the idea of a part time prosecutor is quite ridiculous.”
Another committee member, Dutch RE deputy Sophie in ‘t Veld, praised Kövesi for her “honesty”, adding, “Let’s face this, we have seen all this before where Member States do not deliver on their pledges (on funding).”
“It is clear EPPO does not have sufficient funding and this makes me wonder if some Member States actually want EPPO to fail. You also have to ask if the Commission itself is doing enough to support EPPO.”
“We need effective criminal investigations and I cannot accept EPPO being understaffed and under financed” Patrick Breyer MEP
She added, “Member states have to address this resource issue. If not, then maybe the EU should seriously consider imposing some stiff measures on Member States unless they come forward with more resources.”
“One thing is clear: If EPPO does not make a flying start it will fail,” she warned.
German Pirate Party member Patrick Breyer agreed, saying, “We need effective criminal investigations and I cannot accept EPPO being understaffed and under financed. We need to convince this Parliament and Member States to ensure that EPPO is given the means to do this important job.”
Several members agreed that with Kövesi that the idea of part-time prosecutors was “unacceptable” and argued for the office to be funded differently.
Monika Hohlmeier, a German EPP deputy, said, “Some criticised the original concept of the EPPO though I never understood the logic behind this. I realise there is under funding and need to boost its budget. Part-time prosecutors will simply not work. This is unacceptable.”
“EPPO should not be another EU agency but an institution which is covered by a separate budget line rather than a more general envelope as at present.”
Kövesi will run the EPPO from a central office in Luxembourg alongside European prosecutors from each participating Member State. Investigations will be run by delegated prosecutors nationally.
She accepts that much of the EPPO’s efficacy will depend on Kövesi’s ability to convince Member States to give it the prosecutors and resources it needs. Some, such as Hungary, have not joined, saying prosecutorial powers should remain at the national level.
Prior to leading Romania’s anti-corruption agency, Kövesi was the country’s prosecutor general and worked her way up from being a prosecutor in the central Romanian city of Sibiu.
Her work as the head of Romania’s DNA anti-corruption agency, which secured convictions of mayors, lawmakers and ministers, won Kövesi many admirers in her homeland and in the rest of the European Union.