Brussels is reaching a key stage in moves to open a new agency aimed at tackling fraud involving European Union cash.
What is it?
The European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), which aims to be up-and-running by next year, seeks to address shortcomings of the EU’s other crime-fighting agencies.
There is already the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), which is the only agency that can independently investigate corruption involving EU money.
But it can’t bring those it believes are guilty to justice, its powers stop at the border of each member state.
Rather than launch a prosecution itself, OLAF is only allowed to recommend national authorities investigate.
Between 2009 and 2016 only 44.5% of the agency's judicial recommendations resulted in charges being brought, the rest were dismissed.
A European Parliament-commissioned study in 2016 claimed corruption costs EU countries up to €990 billion a year in terms of losses to gross domestic product.
There is also Eurojust, which aims to improve cooperation on investigations and prosecutions between EU countries.
But, unlike EPPO, it does not have authority over individual countries.
How will the European Public Prosecutor’s Office help?
Brussels says the agency will be able to investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment crimes against the EU budget, such as fraud, corruption or serious cross-border VAT fraud.
There are also moves to extend its powers to cover cross-border terrorism, although nothing has so far been agreed.
EPPO will have a decentralised structure. There will be a chief prosecutor and prosecutors for each participating EU member state, all based in its headquarters in Luxembourg.
There will then be further ‘delegated’ prosecutors working in each country. They will be charged with carrying out the investigations and prosecutions but will be monitored in their work by head office.
“National prosecutors' tools to fight large-scale financial crime in more than one country are limited,” said OLAF.
“The new EU prosecutor will be able to act quickly across borders without the need for lengthy judicial cooperation proceedings.
“This should lead to more successful prosecutions and more efficient recovery of defrauded money.
“Such intervention is needed to tackle the billions that organised criminal gangs make every year by circumventing national and European rules. In 2015, for example – in addition to VAT fraud – national authorities reported fraud of the EU budget worth some €638 million.”
Carl Dolan, director of anti-corruption NGO Transparency International EU, said the EPPO was a good thing.
“It’s a response to a problem in Europe,” he said. “OLAF can do investigations into corruption and fraud but it cannot prosecute them.”
Why are we talking about it now?
The process to appoint the EPPO’s chief prosecutor is hotting up.
Laura Kovesi, who won praise for tackling corruption in Romania, has an interview for the post on February 26.
During a five-year tenure as head of the DNA anti-corruption unit in Romania, conviction rates for high-level graft increased.
But she was forced out on the orders of Romania’s justice minister, Tudorel Toader, who is part of the government led by the Social Democrats (PSD). The party’s leader and Romania’s most-powerful politician, Liviu Dragnea, was accused of fraud by DNA in November 2017.
Kovesi is challenging the dismissal at the European Court of Human Rights and claims this has prompted Bucharest to try and derail her bid to be EPPO’s chief prosecutor.
What countries are taking part?
Twenty-two countries have signed up: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Spain, Finland, France, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia.
What are the problems with EPPO?
“You may have heard of the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee,” said Professor Dermot Walsh, an expert in EU criminal law at the University of Kent. “This is apt by analogy for the EPPO.
“What began as a reasonably coherent centralised structure has been pulled and twisted into a cumbersome and partially decentralised arrangement. This is largely the result of the compromises that have had to be made to resolve tensions between Brussels and member states, without actually binning the concept.
“The effect, however, is that there is likely to be uncertainty, confusion and continued power struggles between the centre and the national authorities in individual cases which may, in turn, result in delays, and cases being dropped or lost. It will also serve to obscure the working of the EPPO to the detriment of transparency and accountability.”
“There is also likely to be turf wars between States and the EPPO over jurisdiction in individual cases. It is likely that its jurisdiction will extend to terrorism which will magnify these problems.
“There is uncertainty over the relationship between EPPO and Eurojust and, more broadly, the relationship between EPPO led investigations/prosecutions and those in member states that are not participating in the EPPO.”