Laura Kövesi knows a lot about fighting fraud and corruption in hostile conditions.
She served as Romania’s chief prosecutor at the anti-corruption directorate from 2013 until she was forced out from her office in 2018 by the then justice minister.
While in office, she brought ex-prime ministers, former ministers, MPs, and mayors to justice.
The 48-year-old Kövesi was also the first woman and the youngest prosecutor general in Romania’s history.
She was so effective, her country’s then political masters even lobbied against her during the selection process to become the EU’s first chief prosecutor.
On Tuesday (1 June), her office, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) launched its operations in Luxembourg.
EPPO’s task is to better protect the EU’s financial interests by fighting cross-border VAT fraud, money laundering, and corruption.
“For the first time, the offenses against the financial interest of the EU will be investigated in an integrated strategic manner by a prosecutorial body with supranational jurisdiction,” Kövesi told a group of journalists on Thursday (3 June).
The central office has 22 European prosecutors who will oversee cases from member states and approve the main decisions in an investigation, such as indictments.
EPPO also has a network of 140 European delegated prosecutors sitting in member states’ capitals, but working for the Luxembourg office under their own criminal code.
“There are no clean countries. So having now EPPO, we will have the same approach for all European delegated prosecutors, to identify and make investigation in these cases will be a priority,” she said.
Kövesi added there were huge discrepancies between member states: some countries have five or six cases per year, others hundreds.
Five member states decided not to join the office, including two countries which are under EU scrutiny for breaching rule of law, Hungary and Poland.
If there is any kind of link to a crime from a non-participating member state, the EPPO can get involved. Otherwise, as is the case now, the EU’s anti-fraud agency, Olaf, can conduct an administrative investigation in those countries.
“Of course, the efficiency and the protection of the EU money would be higher if we would have all the EU member states in the EPPO. But this is their decision. I hope our activity will convince them to join,” Kövesi said.
Kövesi is keenly aware of the responsibility she and her team have in building an effective and trusted institution from scratch. Her office will not solve corruption in all the member states, she warns, but will better protect EU money.
With the EPPO, there will be a much higher level of integration, coordination and information sharing than before, she said.
“What is missing is the fact that we need more staff. We need at least 50 more colleagues here in Luxembourg to work as case analysts and financial investigators,” Kövesi said.
She said that, for 2021, her office received a budget €7m more than previously foreseen, although less than what the EPPO originally asked for. It did not get an approval to hire more staff.
Kövesi said she will propose to give back part of the €7m which EPPO wanted to use for hiring staff, rather than use it for other purposes.
She hopes once the office was operational it could provide concrete statistics on the workload that will trigger the approval by the commission.
“Because if we don’t get the approval to hire more staff, we have this risk that our activity can be blocked because we don’t have enough resources,” she said.
“If the criminals have a Mercedes, and you have to follow them with a bicycle, it’s obvious that they will have the advantage,” Kövesi said.
The first cases registered with EPPO were from Germany and Italy. Kövesi said she could not say when her office will have the first result, as even if indictments are made this year, courts can take one or two years to rule.
EPPO cases will have to be decided by national courts. The office can choose which country is in the best position to investigate a cross-border case, and it will also be tried there.
“Without an independent judiciary you cannot work efficiently, you cannot touch the high corruption. And you cannot investigate the people that are in the key positions to decide, especially on EU funds,” she said.
On the new rule linking EU funds to the respect for the rule of law, Kövesi said that if during her office’s work “there is an attempt to influence or damage and reduce the independence of the judiciary”, they will single out this to the commission.
With regards to Slovenia, where prime minister Janez Janša has recently caused an outcry for not approving the appointment of the two delegated prosecutors to EPPO, Kövesi said a proposal for a candidate should be sent as soon as possible.
The move “undermines very seriously not only the EPPO but also the trust in the effective functioning of the management and control system of the EU funds in Slovenia,” she said.