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EU COVID-19 rescue package: what safeguards are in place against corruption?

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In this Saturday, July 18, 2020, file photo, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban gestures at an EU summit in Brussels.
In this Saturday, July 18, 2020, file photo, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban gestures at an EU summit in Brussels.   -   Copyright  John Thys/AP
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An unprecedented amount of money, €1.8 trillion, has been earmarked by EU leaders to revive the bloc's economies over the next seven years.

However, with such a large pot on offer, there are concerns the fund could be open to fraud.

The EU's anti-fraud agency, OLAF, says fraudsters are attracted to larger, more complicated EU projects, mainly in the fields of infrastructure and research & development.

But the agency has recently set up a centre to share information on cross-border fraud schemes and is now stepping up cooperation between institutions.

"Fraudsters will be attracted to the huge amount of money that is going to be made available - that's very clear," says Ernesto Bianchi, acting Deputy Director-General, OLAF.

Though large sums of money can attract people with less than innocent intentions, it does not necessarily mean that more fraud is committed. Bianchi said his agency works hard to ensure money doesn't get into the wrong hands.

The European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) hopes to expose fraud once it is operational, which is planned for the Autumn. It marked an important milestone on Monday with all 22 prosecutors being appointed.

The EPPO's work complements that of OLAF, which has an investigative and advisory function. The former will be able to carry out criminal investigations and prosecutions supervised by the 22 prosecutors.

Rule of law

There are also concerns about EU payouts and democratic standards, specifically whether they should be linked.

For the first time in history, the European Council highlighted the importance of having conditions to access EU budget funding.

But the text agreed on by EU leaders following the marathon EU summit on July 21 has been criticised for being watered down.

"I think the mere question that we are discussing the interpretation on what the council actually agreed on the rule of law is bad in itself," says Dutch socialist MEP Kati Piri.

"We all know that the text has been watered down and we see different interpretations by journalists, by EU leaders, even by EU law professors. For the Parliament, it's clear, that this has to be clarified before we can agree on the budget."

But some countries deny the link between access to the fund and respecting democratic standards.

"It's a huge victory," said Hungarian pro-government MEP, Tamás Deutsch, adding "the rule of law and the protection of the financial interests of the European Union are not connected."

Others think that EU leaders have actually tricked Hungary and Poland into signing the final declaration, which allows the Commission to introduce strict measures on rule breakers.

"It's extremely positive that the Council has concluded that these funds need to be protected through conditionalities and stronger anti-fraud measures," said Nicholas Aiossa, deputy director at Transparency International.

But he argues, what is less clear, is how that links to the rule of law: "It depends on the interpretation and whether you are inherently pessimistic or cautiously optimistic."

One thing is clear — the budget's rule of law mechanism won't be ready by the time its first payments go out in early 2021.