The Romanian government’s attacks against the justice system reach Brussels

, by Alexis Vannier, Translated by Lorène Weber

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The Romanian government's attacks against the justice system reach Brussels
Photo: CC0

It had been on the table in Brussels for more than thirty years: the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) will finally become effective and fight financial crimes. As traditionally Eurosceptic (and even illiberal) countries do not want to take part in it, the appointment of EPPO’s chief took a particular turn, in a context of fight against corruption and of acerbic plots of low-down political revenge.

The European Public Prosecutor’s Office, a long-awaited success

In 1995, a Convention on the “Protection of the European Communities’ Financial Interests” was signed to approximate the different national laws in this field, and represented the first fulfilment of the member states’ cooperation in this matter. Nevertheless, many opposed any other additional standardisation. In 1999 however, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) was finally created, as a body of the European Parliament. It made the news in France when it requested the National Front to repay the European Parliament concerning the party’s misuse of parliamentary assistants. However, this watchdog has no power of sanction and can only issue recommendations.

Article 86 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, as signed in 2007, gives the possibility for the member states to create a European Public Prosecutor’s Office. This body would have the competence to fight criminality with a cross-border dimension, for example in cases of misappropriation of European funds or VAT fraud. Finally, in December 2016, the French and German Ministers of Justice proposed an enhanced cooperation to create this EPPO, to overcome the opposition of some member states in a field where unanimity is required.

In 2018, with the support of Malta and the Netherlands, 20 countries created the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which should start operating in Luxembourg in November 2020. It will be composed of 22 prosecutors, including one chief whose nomination is ongoing, with more difficulties than expected. Three candidates are running: the German Andres Ritter, the French Jean-François Bohnert and the Romanian Laura Codruţa Kövesi.

Laura Kövesi, champion of the fight against corruption

The most publicised candidate is probably Laura Kövesi, as the Romanian government is forming a cabal against her and is determined to do anything to blocking her accession to the position of EPPO chief.

Laura Kövesi is a prominent figure in the fight against corruption, with remarkable results. She consequently inspires fear among some representatives of the corrupt system in her country and elsewhere.

Laura Kövesi was Romania’s public prosecutor from 2006 to 2012, and was then appointed chief prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA in Romanian) in 2013. She exhibited great efficiency in her inquiries against corrupt politicians and industrial leaders, and did not hesitate to attack high officials such as the Mayor of Bucharest, some of her colleagues at the DNA regarding cases related to the 1989 Romanian revolution, the very influential president of the Social Democratic Party and current president of Romania’s Chamber of Deputies, Liviu Dragnea (for electoral fraud and influence peddling), and even the Prime Minister Victor Ponta. Following these charges, they all had to resign. Needless to say that the current government, stemming from the PSD, has reasons to be mad at Laura Kövesi.

The controversial reforms of the justice system which have been led by the PSD for three years and infuriated part of the population, led the Minister of Justice Tudorel Toader to try to depose prosecutor Kövesi. Despite the support of the street and of Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis, the Constitutional Court ordered the dismissal of Laura Kövesi.

A candidacy, an infuriated government and out-of-date traditional divisions

The Council and the European Parliament have the difficult task of nominating the leader of the future EPPO, among the three candidates. And they have divergent preferences. The Council, within the Committee of Permanent Representatives, gave 50 votes to Bohnert and 29 to Kövesi and Ritter. The two committees of the Parliament concerned by this decision, i.e. Civil Liberties and Budgetary Control, appointed Laura Kövesi as their favourite. Several political parties also declared being in favour of this candidacy: the European People’s Party (EPP), the Party of European Socialists (PES) and the Liberals and Democrats (ALDE). The vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, also expressed his support for Laura Kövesi.

The Romanian government of the PSD, a party subject to numerous investigations led by the public prosecutor’s office of Bucharest, firmly opposes Kövesi’s candidacy and campaigns eagerly to exclude her from the race. In parallel, the Romanian justice system indicted on corruption charges Laura Kövesi. In a country that has been attacking the justice reform for a few years, and whose government is suspected of willing to unravel the guarantees of fight against corruption to protect some members of the PSD, it is legitimate to question the soundness of this investigation. The judges even banned Laura Kövesi from leaving the country, before reconsidering and cancelling their decision faced with the resulting outcry.

In an attempt demonstrating the Romanian government’s fierce opposition to this candidacy, the Minister of Justice Tudorel Toader, who had previously asked for Laura Kövesi’s dismissal, went as far as writing a letter against Mrs Kövesi to his 27 European counterparts. It is particularly easy for the minister to do so as his country is currently holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.

As the Parliament and the Council disagree, the talks should take place between these two institutions to find a chief to the future European Public Prosecutor’s Office. These talks could happen after July, which is after the end of the Romanian presidency of the Council.

Laura Kövesi’s candidacy appears as a strong signal for judicial independence and for the fight against corruption, which should however not suffer too much from these numerous oppositions. This proves, if proof was still needed, that the rule of law in Europe still has a long way to go.

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