'European' cannot mean weak

This editorial was published in Welt am Sonntag on 11 July 2020.

As a young prosecutor, I used to wonder why white-collar criminals would gamble with their freedom. With experience, I came to realise that their general assumption is that the risk of getting caught and punished is so low, that it is one worth taking. Many even consider that time in jail is well spent, provided they can keep what they have stolen. I do not believe in paradise on earth; we cannot eradicate crime. The real question is how well we can contain it, collectively.

The European Public Prosecutor’s Office is one of the most ambitious initiatives in this regard. It has been established to deal with fraud that affects the financial interests of the European Union. In other words, we are a prosecution office specialised in white-collar crime that targets the expenditures and revenues of the EU budget.

It sounds very technical and is clearly not in the spotlight of public attention. Truth is economic and financial criminality is under-reported, underestimated – often even tolerated. This does not make it less dangerous. Quite the contrary: it is the most common threat to any democratic society. Once you take a close look at the phenomenon, you realise that its ultimate beneficiaries are criminal organisations that aspire to subvert and replace legitimate authorities. They do not shy away from extreme violence to secure their impunity. If you do not confront them with utmost determination, you risk waking up in a situation of state capture and associated security threats. 

Our structure is complex, even by European standards. At the central level, the European Prosecutors take strategic decisions. In our decentralised offices, embedded in the respective national judiciaries, the European Delegated Prosecutors investigate, prosecute and bring our cases to justice. Operating under 22 different criminal procedural law regimes, using different equipment, technologies, methods and languages and yet working as a single office – this has never been attempted before. For the first time in history, a supranational authority is prosecuting in front of national courts.

Whenever we are competent, national authorities have a legal obligation to let us do our work. No one can replace us. We are a systemic part of the overall architecture put in place by the European Union to protect its financial interests. Let us face it: two decades after the Eurozone, we have created the “EPPO zone”.

This has far-reaching implications. For instance, if the activity of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office is obstructed in a given Member State, can European funds continue to flow there? If we are not in a position to do our job properly, can the budgetary authority still trust that the supervision of bodies responsible for the management and control of Union funds in that Member State is complete? What should the consequences be?

Unfortunately, these are not merely theoretical questions: in late May, just before the start of our operations, the Slovenian government decided to annul the selection procedure of European Delegated Prosecutors that had already been finalised by the Slovenian State Prosecutorial Council in December 2020. Putting aside the question of the compatibility of this annulment with the rule of law, the delay it causes seriously affects not only our cases in Slovenia, but also all our cross-border investigations initiated in other participating Member States that involve Slovenia. Without European Delegated Prosecutors in Slovenia, we have a prosecution gap in the EPPO zone.

This situation needs to be urgently addressed. It is a matter of credibility. Criminals tend not to be impressed by the mere fact that we are a “European” institution. Being “European” has to mean something, especially since we are replacing national authorities in such a sensitive field. “European” cannot mean weak.

Only an independent and strong European Public Prosecutor’s Office can make a real difference in the fight against organised crime that defrauds billions of value added tax each year. Only a well-equipped and staffed European Public Prosecutor’s Office can provide an improved level of protection to the financial interests of the EU that, as it happens almost doubled with the launch of the NextGenerationEU recovery plan.

There is room for significant improvement if we wish to be consistent. Our means have to match the assigned ambitions, or at least our actual competence. Action has to back the principles and values we claim as fundamental. The success of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office is of strategic importance for the European Union.

Not least because we are closer to the citizens than any other European institution, with the exception of the European Parliament. The act of prosecution materializes the values of justice. Prosecutors are visible because justice has to be seen. European Delegated Prosecutors acting in front of national courts, defending the European public interest, are a powerful incarnation of the Europe of Justice.

Laura Kövesi
European Chief Prosecutor