The historical changes in the EU come at the rate of existential crises. And the covid-19 is not just any. When the member states prepare their plans and reforms to be able to enjoy the recovery funds, of which Italy and Spain are the great beneficiaries, the European Union simultaneously advances in the creation of an effective European prosecutor’s office in the fight against fraud economic. Although the first stones of the project began to be placed long before the appearance of the virus, the agency, which had been set last November to start operating, does not finish starting due to continuous delays and setbacks.
At the head of the European Prosecutor’s Office against Fraud (EPPO, for its acronym in English), in charge of investigating, prosecuting, and bringing to trial those responsible for crimes against European financial interests, stands the figure of the Romanian Laura Kövesi, named Attorney General in 2019 by the European Parliament (EP) and the Council and that he is an anti-corruption symbol in his country.Every year, the EU loses around € 1 trillion in revenue – that is, around € 2,000 for each European citizen – due to tax fraud and evasion, according to estimates by the European institutions.
Specifically, the European Commission reported in 2018 a loss of 140,000 million euros in VAT revenue. As a result of the pandemic and the management of recovery funds, those figures are expected to pulverize. This week, EPPO announced a collaboration agreement with Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, to fight together against crimes against the EU Budget including organized crime and cross-border fraud. As the EU’s criminal intelligence center, “our cooperation with Europol is a strategic tool to better fight those who try to steal money from European citizens,” the statement from the European Public Prosecutor celebrated.
To date, prosecuting crimes such as VAT fraud was the sole responsibility of the national prosecutors of the Member States, who instead lacked jurisdiction beyond their borders. For their part, institutions such as Europol or the EU anti-fraud office, OLAF, had no legal authority to act. Many of the EPPO investigations will be based on documents and instructions carried out by these institutions”, assesses Dragos Tudorache, Romanian MEP for the liberals of Renew Europe a Europa Hoy. Tudorache participated last Tuesday in an appearance by Kövesi herself before the Justice (LIBE) and Budget Control (CONT) commissions of the European Parliament.
Given the nearly 2,000 cases that the European Prosecutor’s Office (based in Luxembourg) could open, according to estimates by the prosecutor Kövesi herself, MEPs from the LIBE committee of the EP accuse the Council of doing everything possible to ensure that the EPPO unsuccessful: lack of funds, understaffing and meddling in the prosecutor selection process. “The members of the EPPO should be appointed based on the results of an evaluation carried out by an independent panel of experts at the European level. The problem is that the Council has not taken these evaluations into account, and not just once but several times, and based on false information, “says Tudorache. The longer the nominations process is delayed, he stresses, the more “suspicions will be raised about the interests behind the Council.
The European Commission yesterday asked the Member States to avoid further delays in the start of operations of the European Prosecutor’s Office against fraud, created in 2018, and in which only 22 of the 27 capitals currently participate. ‘The Commission wants to see this in the first half of the year. In December I already asked (the countries) to appoint prosecutors and apply the necessary legislation, ”demanded the Commissioner of Justice, the Belgian Didier Reynders, in a few words collected by Efe. “It is essential that the money from the European budget is well spent and protected against fraud,” he added.
Among the laggards, Bulgaria, Belgium, and Portugal stand out, which precisely inaugurates the rotating presidency of the Council. Last July, the socialist government of António Costa promoted the nomination of José Guerra against the recommendation of an independent European ‘advisory panel’, which had opted for Ana Carla Almeida, under criteria of professional experience and skills.
Against the verdict of the expert council, Lisbon presented Guerra’s candidacy in the fall of 2019, including falsehoods on his resume as a prosecutor. MEPs from the center-right European People’s Party and Renew Europe, liberal, have asked the Executive for explanations about what has been interpreted as a political appointment, far from the independence aspirations of the nascent European Attorney General’s Office. Among the Socialists, according to party sources, they accuse the popular Portuguese of wanting to muddy the beginning of the Portuguese presidency of the Council at such a decisive moment for the Union.
Behind the scenes, with great discretion, Kövesi strives to raise the Prosecutor’s Office before a scenario that can be critical when the recovery funds arrive. He will not have it easy, as he did not lead the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (2013-2018) in Romania, one of the most corrupt countries in the EU, along with Bulgaria and Hungary, according to the NGO Transparency International. Accustomed to making history – not for nothing did she become the youngest attorney general in Romania – she now faces the challenge of her life. “I am very confident in Kovesi’s work, he did a great job in Romania for years pursuing corruption, but the Prosecutor’s Office needs resources,” concludes his compatriot Tudorache. The reputation of the institution, and consequently of the EU itself, depends on being allowed to succeed.