Although I have written numerous times about the newly created European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), an article in today’sPolitico prompted me to return to the topic.
Currently, there are two serious candidates for the job of chief prosecutor: the Romanian Laura Codruţa-Kövesi, the famed former head of the Romanian Direcția Națională Anticorupție (DNA), and the French Jean-François Bohnert, prosecutor-general at the Court of Appeals in Reims. In March, the European Parliament endorsed Codruţa-Kövesi as its candidate for the job. Bohnert is the favorite of the European Council. A final decision still hasn’t been reached. However, a few days ago we learned that Bohnert, who was strongly supported by Emmanuel Macron, was offered the job of heading France’s Financial Prosecutor’s Office. It looked as if Macron no longer insisted on a Frenchman for EPPO and that Codruţa-Kövesi’s appointment was thus pretty much assured.
In light of the above, I was very surprised to read that Bohnert has no intention of withdrawing from the race. In fact, he argues that he is much more qualified for the job than is his Romanian rival. His claim is that Codruţa-Kövesi focuses too much on the corruption of politicians when that is only a small part of the job. As he put it, “it’s like using binoculars, if you change the focus it’s not the same.” He quoted the text of the law which states that EPPO will “investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment the perpetrators of offenses against the Union’s financial interests.” When he went into details of the office’s mandate, his emphasis was on work that “will involve going after criminals responsible for VAT fraud and other crimes.” This emphasis on cross-border crimes most likely stems from his tenure (2003-2007) as France’s deputy representative to Eurojust, an agency of the European Union created to improve the handling of serious cross-border crime by stimulating investigative and prosecutorial coordination.
Bohnert’s argument seems weak to me. Just because in Romania, as in so many former communist countries, Codruţa-Kövesi mostly encountered criminals who happened to be politicians doesn’t mean that she would be unqualified to head an office that also goes after criminals outside the political sphere. Bohnert’s attitude, as reflected in the article, leads me to believe that the gentleman from Alsace doesn’t quite understand the seriousness of the problem in the East-Central European countries which, at least in Hungary’s case, means systemic corruption on the highest political level. If he accuses Codruţa-Kövesi of narrowly focusing on the kinds of financial-political crimes she encountered in Romania, he can be charged with concentrating on the kinds of cross-border crimes he encountered while working for Eurojust.
I fear that Bohnert will be apt to look upon EPPO as a new version of Eurojust. For example, he thinks that countries that are currently non-members “could still be investigated if there is a link to another country that is on board.” Well, he can investigate until doomsday in the non-member Hungary; it will not take him very far. OLAF could investigate too, without any tangible results. In fact, Hungary’s first argument against setting up EPPO was that the European Union already has an adequate body, Eurojust. Yes, VAT frauds cannot be tolerated, but the political banditry that goes on in some of the newer EU countries does more than financial damage. It shakes people’s trust in democracy and, in the final analysis, in the European Union.
Interestingly enough, according to Romania Journal, Bohnert is still up for the job to head the French Financial Prosecutor’s Office and appeared at a hearing on his nomination on July 11. Yet he is remaining in the race whose outcome depends on which body will come out on top, the European Parliament or the European Council. Currently 22 countries are participating members of EPPO. Hungary, Poland, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom are non-participants. Romania fought tooth and nail against considering Codruţa-Kövesi for the job, but since President Klaus Iohannis, a liberal, represents Romania in the European Council, a Romanian veto shouldn’t be taken for granted. The question is whether Poland and Hungary are eligible to vote. Common sense tells me that, since they are non-participating members, they shouldn’t have the right to express an opinion, but I don’t know the rules.
Laura Codruţa-Kövesi has several points in her favor. First, she is from a region whose politicians didn’t fare well during the negotiations that eventually led to the current team of top leaders. Having a Romanian in this important post would help to rectify the present geographical imbalance. Second, the area she comes from is the most infected by corruption, which in most cases cannot be neatly divided between purely financial and purely political crimes. A good example of the coalescence of the two is the case of István Tiborcz, the son-in-law of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Judging from Politico’s article, Bohnert doesn’t seem to grasp the nature and depth of corruption in those countries that have been the chief recipients of the largesse of the taxpayers of the western member states. According to calculations, 90% of all Hungarian government projects have been financed by the European Union. There are different calculations on how much of that money is stolen outright, but even that which is not directly stolen goes into the pockets of Viktor Orbán’s favorites who yearly take out enormous “dividends” from the profits they make on EU-financed government projects.
At the time of Codruţa-Kövesi’s endorsement by the Conference of Presidents, Ska Keller, president of the Greens, said that “the European Parliament is sending a strong message that we take the fight against corruption, fraud and cross-border crime seriously by endorsing someone with such experience and expertise.” We will see whether the heads of government agree.