The EPPO is Eastern Europe’s best hope against corruption

, by Radu Dumitrescu

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The EPPO is Eastern Europe's best hope against corruption
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According to Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index, Eastern Europe was one of the worst-performing regions of the world, with an average score comparable to that of Central Asia. It is very easy to see why – Belarus, Serbia and Ukraine, but also EU countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia show very high levels of perceived corruption. The EU’s European Public Prosecutor’s Office is paramount to fixing that.

A history of corruption

The present situation within the Eastern part of Europe can be explained in several ways, one of it being historical – Eastern European states appeared later on under the pressure of large empires such as Austria, the Ottoman Empire or Russia.

In Eastern Europe, government originated at the centre and gradually expanded to include other regions, thus bypassing the culture of local governance that was never lacking in Germany. A tumultuous interwar period gave way to a prolonged period of communist rule in which party-bred corruption was integrated within the political and administrative system at every level.

Left hanging by history in 1989, Eastern Europe turned to its richer, democratic and more liberal Western counterpart. As such, it had to alter its system and to show meaningful signs of improvement. Late-comers to the European Union, Romania and Bulgaria, were placed under the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification (CVM), a tool set up by the Commission meant to address the judicial reform and corruption in the two countries.

The CVM aims to monitor the progress registered by Romania and Bulgaria in those fields post-accession to the European Union. Drawing upon numerous sources, including civil society and international organisations, the Commission thus reports on the status of anti-corruption efforts in both of its members and recommends a further course of action.

Government vs. Judiciary

However, Poland, Hungary, and Romania are all going back on their reforms regarding the judiciary. For example, until 2012, Romania was improving its score step by step, showing a rise in the trust that its people placed in the rule of law and the impartiality of judges.

The Social-Democrats, in power in Romania since 2012, along with their Liberal-Democrat coalition partners, have been mounting an overhaul of the judiciary ever since they won the elections, primarily using emergency ordinances of the government and thus bypassing the Parliament.

Contested and debated even with the governing coalition, some of the emergency ordinances directly concern the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA). In what can only be described as a reverse Poland – as the Law and Justice Party governing Poland lowered the retirement age for judges of the Supreme Court, thus pushing many of them off the bench –, the Social-Democrats in Romania have raised the number of years of activity required for a prosecutor to be part of the DNA. As such, 10 years of activity as a prosecutor will be required in order for a candidate to become eligible, and 15 to become chief prosecutor, whereas at present the Chief Prosecutor herself only had to have 8 years. As these rules, along with another one requiring a contest as a way of being hired in the DNA, will apply to the existing institution, all of its prosecutors can be let go.

Romania’s constitution states that the prosecutors work “under the authority of the minister of justice”, something that the Supreme Court of Romania has recently reinforced. The same empowered Minister of Justice is at present pushing his pick for chief prosecutor of the DNA to the President, who can only refuse one nomination, despite receiving a negative advisory recommendation from the Superior Council of Magistrates.

In Romania and throughout Eastern Europe, the judiciary is increasingly politicized, thus breaking one of the foundational principles of democracy, first enunciated by Montesquieu – the separation of powers within the state.

The European Public Prosecutor’s Office

The European Union cannot let its newest members, whose people have some of the lowest turnout rates at the European elections, fall in the grasp of corruption and rampant abuse of power.

The Union’s budget for regional development and cohesion policy between 2021 and 2027 is currently set at around €373 million. European leaders have increased it since the previous years, recognizing the need for the continent’s least developed areas to move forward, creating jobs, opportunities, and markets in a win-win for all those involved. And yet, despite numerous declarations and press releases mentioning “concern”, rule of law seems to be forgotten when it comes to taking actual measures.

Increased cooperation is paramount not only in regional development but also when it comes to justice. For that purpose, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office was established in June 2017. Operating on the legal basis provided by the Lisbon Treaty and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union’s Article 86, the EPPO is meant to do what the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), Eurojust (the European Agency for criminal justice cooperation) and Europol (the European Police Office) cannot do – criminal investigations and the prosecution of fraud.

While the already existing agencies can only conduct administrative investigations, which then must be referred to national authorities, the EPPO will carry out investigations on its own across the Member States that have agreed to this form of enhanced cooperation, and will be assisted by – but not subordinated to – the national bodies.

With a European Chief Prosecutor and 21 European Prosecutors, one per participating Member State, the EPPO is set to have its first cases in 2020. Located in Luxembourg, the EPPO will operate with complete independence from other EU bodies but most importantly of all, form national interests.

Eastern Europe needs the EPPO more than it needs air. It cannot be just another placebo institution that Poland, Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria have to swallow in front of the European Union. In 2017, Germany received 60,000 migrants from Syria, but it also received 73,000 from Romania, 34,000 from Poland, 33,000 from Croatia and 30,000 from Bulgaria. Corruption creates poverty, and drives people away from their homeland, just like civil war. The only difference is that it occurs at a slower pace.

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