Many EU citizens and rule of law experts hope that the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) - which will have competencies to investigate crimes against the Union budget and which is supposed to start functioning in 2020 - will provide a new impetus to the fight against corruption on a pan-European scale. According to the latest Annual Report on the Protection of the European Union’s financial interests, fraudulent and non-fraudulent irregularities affected €2.5 billion of the EU’s budget in 2018.
Laura Kövesi, who was appointed as the EU’s first chief public prosecutor, has a long track record of fighting corruption in her native Romania. Yet, is a solid résumé enough to tackle the immense challenge before this new EU institution? At a recent meeting of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) at the European Parliament in December 2019, Kövesi herself raised awareness that while the EPPO had only four operational support staff members; she expected to receive more than a thousand cases in 2020.
Beyond the fears that the EPPO will be overwhelmed, there is a parallel story which may impede EPPO’s activities even further - some governments may sabotage Kövesi’s work.
Bulgaria, the corrupt EU elephant in the room
Bulgaria will surely be a focus of concern for Kövesi because it is notorious for its corruption. It has been ranked as the most corrupt EU member by reputable indices, such as the Corruption Perceptions Index, the Freedom Barometer, and the Rule of Law Index. It is also one of the biggest recipients of EU funds when one factors in GDP. My calculations based on publicly available data show that Bulgaria has one of the highest GDP to EU funds ratio in the EU at 4.91%. By contrast, Hungary has a lower ratio with 4.59%.
Meanwhile, in its 2019 report on organised crime in Bulgaria, the Centre for the Study of Democracy argues that 35.5% of Bulgarian companies claim there is corruption in public procurement. Another opinion poll by the German-Bulgarian Industrial-Commercial Chamber in April 2019 showed that 54% of respondents believed public procurement procedures in Bulgaria were non-transparent.
An investigation by the Bulgarian partner of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project Bivol, which became known as Guest House Gate, adds the final touches to the grim picture of Bulgaria’s rule of law which emerges. It revealed that politicians and their relatives built luxurious private houses with EU funds while pretending to develop Bulgarian tourism. These houses have never functioned as tourist facilities.
Who fears Laura Kövesi?
Considering the rampant corruption in the country, it is not surprising that Bulgaria’s government led by Boyko Borissov’s GERB party, a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), fears Laura Kövesi.
In 2017, Kövesi visited Bulgaria to give a lecture about fighting political graft on the invitation of the president of Bulgaria’s Supreme Court of Cassation, Lozan Panov. However, politicians from leading parties as well as the Prosecutor’s Office (known for its political sympathies), boycotted the event. Moreover, pro-government media called her visit “a provocation.”
The news that Kövesi could become the first EU chief public prosecutor seems to have induced sheer panic in Bulgarian political circles. At the February 2019 Coreper II meeting at the European Council, the Bulgarian representative voted against her candidacy. As the tide began to turn and Kövesi gained more support from the EPP, Prime Minister Borissov had no choice but to change his public stance.
However, the government had another card up their sleeve: tacit sabotage of the EPPO’s future activities concerning Bulgaria. Not only is there criticism that the three candidates for a representative of Bulgaria in the EPPO - which Bulgaria nominated - have no experience in investigating fraud, but also there are doubts that the selection procedure was adjusted so that more qualified candidates did not fulfill the selection criteria.
Moreover, in October 2019, the governing majority enacted rushed amendments to make sure the specialised criminal court, which has features of an extraordinary tribunal and is politically dependent, had exclusive jurisdiction to examine cases investigated by the EPPO. The opposition was bewildered by the hurry because Bulgaria has still not transposed Directive 2017/1371 on the fight against fraud of the Union's financial interests.
Who wants to deceive Laura Kövesi?
Bulgaria’s puppetmasters are unrivalled at staging performances. Parallel to taking measures which can potentially undermine the work of the EPPO, they have engaged in a rhetoric reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, ‘The Emperor's New Clothes’ with the clear purpose to deceive the international community about the frightening situation in Bulgaria.
For years, Borissov, his ministers and the Prosecutor’s Office have been denying there is rampant corruption in Bulgaria. In the past, Borissov went as far as saying that Bulgaria was considered to be corrupt because of “slanderous reports” by “irresponsible” NGOs and media, thus dismissing the research by Transparency International, Freedom House, etc.
Of course, Borissov’s close ties to the EPP have provided a shield against sober criticism in the reports on Bulgaria under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which is supposed to monitor progress in the areas of rule of law and the fight against corruption. The last reports do not reflect the reality in the country - an alarming phenomenon observed by reputable organisations such as Magistrats Européens pour la Démocratie et les Libertés (MEDEL).
The latest attempt to trick EU institutions and civil society took place at the very meeting of the LIBE committee at the European Parliament, at which Laura Kövesi presented her views on EPPO’s future as mentioned above. The vice-chair of this committee, Bulgarian MEP Emil Radev (a member of the ruling GERB party) had invited Ivan Geshev, who was recently elected as Bulgaria’s General Prosecutor despite mass protests against him, to speak alongside Kövesi. Geshev talked about Bulgaria’s enormous success in fighting corruption.
As early as they learned that Geshev was invited to this meeting, independent Bulgarian investigative journalists suspected that this was a PR move planned by Bulgarian EPP MEPs to portray Geshev as the Bulgarian Kövesi and to mislead MEPs about corruption in Bulgaria. That is why they sent information about their investigations to the members of the LIBE committee. MEPs Ramona Strugariu (Renew, Romania) and Claire Daly (GUE/NGL, Ireland) confronted Geshev about these issues and do not seem to have received satisfactory responses. Daly even shared her worries that Geshev’s presence undermined the credibility of the meeting.
Thanks to Bulgarian journalists, the staged performance was exposed. But can one always count on vigilant civil society members to discern such deceitful scenarios in the future? Kövesi certainly has a mammoth task in front of her. She has to do her difficult work in an environment in which appearances can be deceiving. The fact that Bulgaria is just one of many EU members which exhibit systemic corruption makes her challenge of navigating the EU landscape even bigger.
- Dr Radosveta Vassileva is Teaching Fellow at University College London, an EU legal expert and a social activist focused on the rule of law.
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