Giovanni Kessler is leaving town. The fiery anti-mafia prosecutor who has headed the European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, for nearly seven years has just been scooped up by the Italian authorities. In a surprise move that shows the respect he has won over his long-standing career, Kessler has been appointed at the helm of the Italian Customs. It is a prestigious post, where he will manage around 10000 customs officials and be responsible for the collection and recovery to the European and Italian budget of billions of euros annually.
It is of course a challenging post, but Kessler is well-versed in taking on difficult jobs. Many close to him say he likes a good battle if he believes the principle is worth fighting for. In his early career, he prosecuted difficult anti-mafia and economic crime cases in Italy, before entering politics and authoring several anti-corruption bills. On the international scene, he also worked for the OSCE in Kosovo, prompting reform on police and justice matters. The experience forged a man of strong will, who does not shy away from difficult assignments.
In Brussels, Kessler has successfully sailed through his seven year mandate at OLAF, though the institutional waters have often been perilous for him, with many attempts to curb his independence and to weaken OLAF. He has shown resilience and determination, and during his mandate he has modernised OLAF, turning it into an efficient anti-fraud machine. This has not been to the liking of numerous politicians – those under investigation, like former Commissioner John Dalli or Marine Le Pen, those wishing to control OLAF, like Inge Grässle MEP, the chair of the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee, or those at Member State level having to repay defrauded EU funds back to Brussels. Kessler has also been an uncomfortable presence for many in the Brussels circles, too outspoken, too independent, too committed to fighting fraud perhaps…
Unperturbed by his adversaries, Kessler has pushed on with reforming OLAF though the job was far from easy. Under his guidance, since 2012, OLAF has opened 83% more investigations and closed 93% more cases than before the reorganisation. In real terms, this translates into several thousand large-scale investigations completed and hundreds of recommendations issued, with several billion euros recommended for recovery, all in an ever shorter time frame and with no staff increase. In order to achieve this, Kessler took a tough managerial approach, shifting resources internally, hiring external managers, promoting younger staff. He prompted the Office to refine its investigative tools and techniques, all in an attempt to deliver better results in fighting fraud and corruption. Kessler has also been an ardent advocate for creating a stronger common space for justice at EU level, speaking up in favour of setting a strong European Public Prosecutor and of harmonising EU penalties for economic crimes. He supported proficient anti-corruption laws at national level too, for instance in Eastern Europe and also Ukraine.
More importantly, during his tenure, OLAF gradually started to take on high profile cases without a blink. These were cases such as the one that led to the resignation of Commissioner Dalli for undisclosed relations with the tobacco industry where he sought money in exchange of favours, the recent case showing how Marine Le Pen defrauded the European Parliament through diverting EU allowances, the case that revealed that UK authorities closed their eyes on enormous customs fraud for years, leading up to a bill of 2billion euros in lost customs duties that will now have to be returned to Brussels. Such cases have certainly not won him any friends, but they are the very proof of Kessler’s independence as the man took no instructions and paid no favours to anyone. These cases also show that OLAF has become a strong body, with state of the art tools and expertise to uncover complex fraud cases.
Italy has now taken back a valuable and competent player, and it is somewhat astonishing that the EU institutions did not find a way to keep Kessler by entrusting him with another position at EU level.
At OLAF, his shoes will certainly be difficult to fill. It won’t be easy to maintain the same level of quality and output for the Office in years to come. Whoever follows will have to fight against vested interests and show the same resilience in maintaining his or her independence, even if this means making powerful enemies in Brussels and beyond. One can only hope that in choosing his successor, the Institutions will make the interest of EU taxpayers prevail, as the fight against fraud and corruption is of primary importance if we want ordinary Europeans to still believe in the EU dream.