Dear Mr Coronakis,
I was pleased to see that you devoted the “Kassandra” column in the Easter issue of New Europe to the creation of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) and the future of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). As you know, the protection of the EU budget has been at the heart of my activities ever since I entered the European Parliament, and the legislative work to prepare the ground for the EPPO (and reform the OLAF) has been my daily bread since 2012, when the Commission submitted the proposal for the PIF Directive, which defines the offences for which the EPPO will be competent. I am happy that you put the spotlight on this topic, which is highly relevant for citizens and, in my view, deserves more attention than it usually gets. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to comment on a few claims made in your column which, I am afraid, misrepresent or distort the facts.
Firstly, you write that the creation of the EPPO seems designed to marginalise OLAF, as if this were some secret plot. As a matter of fact, the creation of the EPPO has always been based on the premise that the EPPO would largely take over OLAF’s responsibilities in the area of crimes that affect the EU budget – including, contrary to what you stated, fraud committed by EU officials and Members of the institutions. The stakeholders have always been quite open about this. Any Commission communication or minutes of parliamentary debates on the topic will show this. At the same time, there is no question that we will still need OLAF in the future, and for three reasons: (1) not all Member States participate in the EPPO, so OLAF will keep all its current responsibilities for those non-participating Member States; (2) if the damage is below a certain threshold, the EPPO might not be competent, or administrative follow-up measures might be sufficient; (3) the EPPO will decide to leave certain cases or supportive tasks to OLAF for reasons of workload/priority setting (let’s not forget that even once it will be fully functional, the EPPO will still only have half the manpower of OLAF!).
Why do we promote this shifting of tasks from OLAF to the EPPO? In a nutshell, we hope that the EPPO will be able to do all the things for which you rightfully praise OLAF – independent investigations into fraud and corruption – in a much more effective way. The problem with our current anti-fraud policy is that OLAF is a purely administrative body, with no powers whatsoever to conduct criminal investigations or bring such crimes to judgement. OLAF may be well-respected, but the sad truth is that, until now, the Member States follow up on less than half of the cases successfully concluded by OLAF, and only a fraction of them ends with a sentence. The EPPO, on the other hand, will be an entirely different beast: a “proper” law enforcement authority, which will not have to take the “detour” of national authorities in order to fulfil its tasks. Saying that besides DG BUDG, “nobody else cares” about the EPPO, therefore, could not be further from the truth. We are all putting high hopes in it!
This leads me to the second point: your comments on the appointment procedure for the first European Chief Prosecutor. If we really want the EPPO to be a success, we need someone who is competent, bold and independent. Laura Codruţa Kövesi fits the bill perfectly. These qualities – and not some purported ties to MEPs – are the reason why she has the support of both the Budgetary Control Committee and the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee. Not only this, she was also ranked first by the – fully independent – selection panel; the Council put her and the German candidate on an equal second place. All shortlisted candidates are respected experts in their field, each with their own merits, but Ms Kövesi stands out by her impressive track record as former Prosecutor General of Romania and chief of Romania’s anti-corruption agency DNA. Under normal circumstances, any national government would be proud to have one of their compatriots running for such a high office.
Alas, nothing is normal in this case. The Romanian Socialist government is eroding the rule of law by the day, and the legal actions taken against Ms Kövesi are nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to sabotage her candidature, a vendetta for all the politicians she brought down with her anti-corruption investigations. Ms Kövesi is a remarkable, brave official, and the behaviour of the Romanian government – the acting Council Presidency! – is just absurd. I am utterly disappointed that the other Member States have so far lacked the courage to stand up to their Romanian peers in the Council. In any case, Parliament’s support for Ms Kövesi is as strong as ever.
Finally, please allow me a remark on your claim that civil servants and MEPs are somewhat exempt from OLAF’s investigations: this is definitely not true, and there is plenty of information in the public domain about successfully concluded high-profile cases to prove the contrary. Members of the European Parliament indeed enjoy immunity, in the same way as members of any national parliament, but if they are suspected of a crime, and the law enforcement authority makes a request, the immunity will be lifted. This actually happens quite routinely – just have a look at any recent plenary agenda.
Dr. Inge Gräßle MEP
Chair of the Budgetary Control Committee of the European Parliament
Standing rapporteur for the revision of the OLAF Regulation (since 2007)
Rapporteur for the PIF Directive (2012–2017)