Brussels finally launched its public prosecutor's office on Tuesday to tackle fraud involving European Union cash and with a promise to "defend the rule of law in the EU."
The European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) will investigate fraud, corruption, and money laundering involving the EU budget, which is set to increase as the bloc rolls out its €750-billion recovery fund on top of its seven-year €1.074 trillion framework.
Based in Luxembourg, the EPPO has been repeatedly delayed since the law that set it up entered into force in November 2017.
Hungary and Poland have refused to join it, while Denmark and Ireland have long-standing opt-out clauses on EU justice matters. Sweden has said it intends to enter the office next year.
The EU's chief prosecutor will be Laura Codruța Kövesi supported by two deputies: Danilo Ceccarelli, from Italy, and Germany's Andrés Ritter.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Kövesi said the credibility of the EU depends on the EPPO.
"Our decisions will directly affect the fundamental rights of European citizens. We're the first really sharp tool to defend the rule of law in the EU," she said.
Kövesi spent five years as the head of the Romanian Anti-Corruption Directorate, which indicted 14 cabinet members, 53 lawmakers, and a Romanian Member of the European Parliament.
When she was ousted from the office for criticising the government's anti-graft legislation, her removal was seen as political retaliation for her department’s successes. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) later ruled that the controversial dismal had violated Kövesi's human rights.
"Our target [will be] economic and financial criminality. Make no mistake, this is the most common threat to any democratic society," she said.
"It is underreported, underestimated, and often even tolerated to the benefit of organised criminal organisations that aspire to subvert and replace legitimate authorities.
"Ultimately, this is whom we are going to be dealing with. People who don't shy away form extreme violence to secure their impunity."
How will EU's prosecutor work in practice?
The European Public Prosecutor’s Office will be fully independent and will operate as a decentralised institution, combining activities at European and national level.
Inside the Luxembourg headquarters, there will be the College of the EPPO, which will comprise the chief prosecutor herself and 22 prosecutors from each participating country.
Additionally, dozens of delegated prosecutors will be based across the 22 countries and will carry out investigations on the ground.
According to Kövesi, at least 140 delegated prosecutors will work using different equipment, techniques and languages. The work and findings of these officials will be supervised by the college.
The Slovenian government has so far failed to name its delegated prosecutors. Kövesi called the move a "manifest lack of sincere cooperation" and added operations will nevertheless begin.
"Doing that the Slovenian government put the EPPO in a very difficult situation because this means we will not increase the level of protection. But the level of protection will decrease. The EPPO hasn’t been created to allow anyone to put the Slovenian cases on shift," Kövesi said on Tuesday.
The EPPO expects to start working on 3,000 cases, with more due to arrive in the coming months.
The cases will focus on crimes against the "financial interests of the EU", which includes all revenues, expenditures and assists covered by the EU budget. In practice, this will mean fraud, corruption, misappropriation of EU funds, money laundering and organised crime, as well as cross-border VAT fraud involving total damages of at least €10 million.
A total of 15 permanent chambers will be in charge of assessing the cases and decide whether to bring them to judgment, refer them to national authorities or dismiss them. Each chamber will be made up of three prosecutors.
If a chamber agrees to bring a case to trial, an EPPO official will act as prosecutor in the competent court of the member state until a verdict is reached. The institution will have to navigate 22 different criminal systems, a challenge that Kövesi said has never been attempted before.
This hands-on involvement is what will set the EPPO apart from other EU entities like Eurojust, OLAF and Europol, which have the powers to investigate crimes and develop policy but not to prosecute. These bodies are dependent on the capabilities of national authorities, which, in turn, are constrained by national borders.
The EPPO's ultimate goal is to put an end to the loss of EU funds.
"In 2019 alone, member states reported fraud affecting €460 million of the EU budget. Such fraudulent activities have a direct impact on people's everyday lives, inflicting serious economic damage. This has to stop, all the more so because COVID-19 has deeply challenged our economies and we need every euro for the recovery," said EU Commissioners Vera Jourová and Didier Reynders in a joint statement.
The first two case of the EPPO come from Germany and Italy, Kövesi announced.