On 1 June, the European Union celebrated the long-awaited launch of the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO), charged with tracking down fraud against EU funds. It was a historic day but tarnished by the fact that not all European Delegated Prosecutors have been appointed (EUROPE B12731A2). After one month of operations, the chief of EPPO, Laura Kövesi, spoke to EUROPE about the initial challenges encountered and the lessons to be learned. (Interview by Marion Fontana)
Agence Europe - What is your evaluation of the functioning of EPPO, one month after the start of its activities? Are you satisfied with the efforts made by the Member States?
Laura Kövesi - I have to recognise that it took a huge effort for our team, but also the Member States,b to be ready by the 1st of June, because they had to implement the EPPO regulation and finalise the procedure to select the candidates for the European Delegated Prosecutors. 21 Member States – all those participating except Slovenia - have done it already. So I can say that cooperation with the Member States was very good.
Of course, like any other institution that has been set up recently, we had a few challenges. For us, the most challenging moment was when we had to adopt the internal rules of procedure and all the internal documents because we had to find a common solution for 22 different member states, with 22 different criminal codes.
We have already received a hundred cases referred by the Member States, which were already registered in their countries, and we have also received some complaints from private parties directly here in Luxembourg.
You have recently asked for more financial resources and more staff. What are your estimates? Do you feel that you have enough support from the European Commission on this?
We have asked for more budget because at the beginning, the budget allocated to EPPO was very low. Now we have a budget around 44 million euros, but our problem is the lack of human resources. We still need at least 50 more members of staff because we want to have more financial investigators and case analysts.
Case analysts allow us to connect the dots, better identify organised crimes and investigate more efficiently. With financial investigators, we can better trace the money and improve the level of damages recovered. I hope that this year, we will be able to hire these people.
What lessons have you learned from the difficulties there have been with all the appointments to EPPO? Do you think that the recruitment procedure should be changed in the future?
Taking into consideration recent events related to Slovenia, yes, I can say that maybe it would be better if EPPO had the opportunity to select the European Delegated Prosecutors. Because look at what happened: Slovenia is part of EPPO, but now, it does not want to fulfil its obligations and propose its European Delegated Prosecutors.
Until now, we didn't think that it would be necessary to change the procedure but after this issue with Slovenia, it is obvious that we need to have this possibility to organise the procedure. But in the end, it not up to us. It is the legislators who must decide and so we shall see if this procedure is changed or not.
Concretely, what are the consequences for EPPO’s efficiency of this lack of appointments from Slovenia?
The fact that we do not have European Delegated Prosecutors in Slovenia means that EPPO cannot be efficient in Slovenia.
Money will continue to flow to the country. But from now on, in the absence of European Delegated Prosecutors, criminals cannot be investigated if they commit financial fraud because, according to the EPPO regulation, EPPO has mandatory jurisdiction. This means that the Slovenian prosecutor’s office is obliged to send that case to the European Delegated Prosecutors, even if it detects or has information about that crime.
Of course, there is a limited possibility based on the EPPO regulation that the Slovenian European prosecutor can take some cases, but in reality, it is very difficult. Based on the statistics that we have for Slovenia, they investigate around 30 cases a year. It will be impossible to take all those cases and carry out the necessary investigations under one European prosecutor, who is established here in Luxembourg and has many other duties.
It is a big problem because we now have a gap EPPO zone. There is a new Minister of Justice, so I don't know how he will deal with this, but our problem is that Slovenia has to make a proposal as soon as possible.
What measures do you think the European Commission should take? Do you think activating the rule of law conditionality for the protection of the Union budget would be a good solution?
It is not my job to say what the European Commission should do but it is obvious that it has the legislative tools to intervene. It is responsible for ensuring that all Member States fulfil the obligations of the EPPO regulation. I'm sure that the European Commission is aware of this problem and let's see what it does.
There were also problems with European Delegated Prosecutors from Bulgaria. You rejected six candidates...
Indeed, we received proposals from Bulgaria to appoint ten European Delegated Prosecutors and we have rejected six of them, because they didn't fulfil the criteria to be appointed. Some of them were police officers. We didn't dispute their professional abilities as police officers, but the problem was that they weren’t prosecutors. This was our main reason for rejecting the proposals.
I recently visited Bulgaria and afterwards, Bulgaria decided to start a new procedure because it understood that it was important to respect our agreement and to make proposals. It was also important that we clarify the criteria that the candidates have to fulfil to be appointed and now we have a common understanding on this. I hope that by early September, or as soon as possible, we will have a proposal to fulfil all the positions in Bulgaria.
Sweden has announced its intention to join EPPO in 2022. How did you manage to convince it? And what are your arguments to try to convince the other non-participating Member States?
Well, I have to say that I can take no credit. I didn't do anything to convince Sweden, it was its own political decision.
We, as prosecutors, cannot comment a lot on this but I hope our activity will convince them to join EPPO, because we would like to work with all our colleagues in Europe. In the meantime, we have started to discuss working arrangements with all non-participating Member States. We already signed one with Hungary and I hope that we will soon sign working arrangements with the other non-participating Member States as well.
It seems that the discussions with Ireland are a bit more difficult…
Well, the beginning was a little bit difficult, because we didn't get any answer, but now we have started discussions with them in earnest. We have a negotiating team, so I hope that we will end up with a working arrangement with Ireland as well.
Do you think that being part of EPPO should be a precondition for easier access to EU funds?
This is a political decision. For me, it is very difficult to answer but it is important to say that EPPO has a lot of advantages. Just to give you an example: the European Delegated Prosecutor from, let's say, Germany can now call his colleagues from France, from Romania, from Bulgaria and ask for assistance to obtain documents or evidence. And then, he can use this evidence directly in his investigation. This means that now, a European Delegated Prosecutor doesn't have to wait two years for an answer. Everything is very fast now. This makes fraud of EU funds easier to investigate. And this is the added value of EPPO.
Another thing we have to take into consideration is the number of investigations because, based on the statistics that I have received, there are huge discrepancies between the Member States. In some Member States, there are two or three investigations per year while in others, there are thousands. So this means that there was not the same incentive to detect and investigate fraud of EU funds everywhere. And with EPPO, this will change.
What is your opinion on a future extension of the competences of EPPO to terrorism or other areas?
I understood that there are some Member States which want to extend the jurisdiction of EPPO. But in the end, this is the decision of the legislators. For me, now, it is important to take all possible measures to be sure that EPPO can function. I believe that we got off to an excellent start, but let's wait and see how EPPO works and then I will be in a better position to comment on whether we should extend its jurisdiction or not.