EU Anti-Fraud Czar Prepares For Pandemic Recovery Fund Challenge
The EU’s leading anti-fraud prosecutor warned his organization would face “many problems” as it braces for police corruption around the € 800 billion manna from the bloc’s pandemic recovery fund .
Laura Codruta Kovesi said her new European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) was preparing to tackle legal challenges, intimidation and pressure on resources once it was launched on June 1.
The European Public Prosecutor’s Office is a response to criticism that the 27-member bloc has ineffectively dealt with repeated fraud scandals linked to its funding. The risk has been magnified by unprecedented planned spending for the coronavirus crisis and the pressure to lavish it quickly to revive economies ravaged by Covid-19.
“I am sure that after starting [work] we will have a lot of problems, ”said Kovesi, former head of anti-corruption in Romania, in an interview. “[But] there is nothing that cannot be managed or dealt with. The only risk I see is the lack of resources. But maybe we will fix this in the next year (s).
Kovesi said she would seek to deal with the most important cases related to the unprecedented sums released as the start of the EU’s normal seven-year budget cycle coincided with its economic stimulus package. The sheer scale of the spending plans presents huge challenges for Brussels and Member States to ensure that the money is properly accounted for.
“EPPO was not created to deal with small cases,” Kovesi said. “There is no clean country. We will take a look in all Member States – this is our job. ”
The body was created in part because the existing system of prosecuting fraud on EU funds was seen as inadequate and failed to deter serious wrongdoing in some member states. In February, the EU’s existing anti-fraud body, Olaf, concluded that the Bulgarian Interior Ministry had violated the terms of a € 6 million EU grant for the purchase of 350 vehicles all-terrain police.
Most importantly, however, Olaf only has the power to recommend member states to get on with business – advice that governments were free to ignore. On the other hand, EPPO prosecutors will be able to conduct investigations and bring cases before national courts.
Sophie in ‘t Veld, a liberal Dutch MEP, said that there was “a great responsibility on Kovesi’s shoulders, but also on the European leaders who must support his mandate and his independence”.
“EPPO will have to face a difficult task right after its creation,” added in ‘t Veld. “The advantage is that he will have a very competent leader in this crucial phase.”
Kovesi said the annual funding of € 44.9 million for the Luxembourg-based European Public Prosecutor’s Office was “not a huge budget for a prosecutor’s office”, compared to some member states, including his home country.
“We need to have more investigators and financial analysts here in Luxembourg,” she said. “It’s not easy to conduct investigations in 22 different Member States with 22 different procedures – and criminals are free to move around all the time, they are free to move their goods.”
A potential obstacle to the success of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office is that five countries – Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, Poland and Sweden – have chosen not to be part of it. This means that issues concerning them can only be investigated if there is a cross-border element with a country that has joined.
Kovesi also said it was a “very bad signal” that Finland and Slovenia had not yet appointed permanent prosecutors for EPPO. The Finnish Permanent Representation to the EU said Helsinki wanted to use a provision to appoint part-time prosecutors “due to a very limited number of criminal cases falling under the jurisdiction of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office”.
Kovesi said she was ready to face legal action alleging that the European Public Prosecutor’s Office was exceeding its powers. She said prosecutors risked being harassed and would need to be courageous – and receive the necessary protection from member states.
She herself has rebounded to prominent post in the EU after being ousted from her post in Romania by the country’s former government in a move widely seen as political.
Kovesi underlined the significant firepower and expertise that EPPO would benefit, including 22 Italian prosecutors. “They have the best experience fighting organized crime,” she said. “In a way, they are unique in Europe and we need their experience.”