EU leaders agreed to slice up a controversial bill to open the first EU public prosecutor’s office, with some backers calling it a victory for “multi-speed Europe” because it will free opposing countries to drop out.
Up to ten countries have signalled they won’t send their national prosecutors to be part of the new office.
During a European Council summit today (9 March), heads of state of the 28 EU countries cut loose countries that don’t want to join the prosecutor’s office by applying the rarely used enhanced cooperation measure to exclude uncooperative member states from EU legislation. Countries can still choose to join later and apply the laws.
The Commission proposed the prosecutor’s office in 2013 with the hope of making it easier and faster to investigate tricky cross-border corruption cases involving EU funds. But some member states are against the proposal.
A spokeswoman for OLAF, the EU anti-fraud agency, said an estimated €888 million could be recovered from fraud investigations in 2015.
Negotiations over an EU prosecutor have gone on for nearly four years and were tripped up by a group of sceptical member states that feared the office could turn into a centralised agency and trample on national judicial systems.
Between 18 and 20 countries have signalled that they will join the prosecutor’s office. The European Commission and countries that steered the regulation through negotiations are calling the downsized version an example of “multi-speed Europe” in practice.
“Multi-speed Europe” quickly became a catchphrase in Brussels when Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week outlined different ways the EU could move ahead after Brexit—including by letting some countries cooperate more on defence, economic and social policies. Countries that aren’t on board can keep looser ties with the EU.
Two weeks from now, leaders will meet again to discuss the multi-speed idea at an EU summit to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the treaty of Rome.
In February, 17 countries signed a letter to heads of state asking them to turn the public prosecutor regulation into a softer agreement that would let opposing member states off the hook.
Germany and France brokered the pivot in December when it became clear that not all 28 member states would agree. Not everyone is happy with the result.
“France and Germany were behind the initial initiatives to move away from the Commission proposal, so there was an understanding between them from the beginning that has decisively shaped [the regulation]”, an Italian diplomat said.
One Commission official said the move showed that multi-speed Europe was already catching on.
Even with weakened support from 18, 19 or 20 countries, the EU public prosecutor is “an example of how European integration at different speeds can practically happen and is actually happening”, the official said. But the source acknowledged that an office with backing from all member states would be “ideal”.
A diplomat from a country joining the prosecutor’s office agreed that it is “a concrete illustration” of how multi-speed Europe could work.
The UK, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands and Malta have all indicated they will not let their national prosecutors be part of the new EU office.
Portugal has suggested it may not join at first, while Cypriot and Italian diplomats said their countries are still waiting to see if the draft bill will be changed in the next few months before deciding if they’ll be part of the office.
OLAF says fraud is not prosecuted enough in Europe. One reason for that is the “tendency among some national prosecutors not to consider cases where the damage is to EU interests with the same level of priority as where national interests are concerned,” a spokeswoman for the agency said.
The enhanced cooperation measure was introduced in 2003 as a way to apply EU laws to a group of at least nine countries. But it has only been used three times so far.
Governments that want an EU prosecutor have until June to formally notify the European Council that they’re going ahead with the change. The European Parliament needs to approve the changed draft regulation setting up the office, but cannot make any amendments to it.
A Commission spokesman said with the green light from leaders today, “we will be able to set up the European Public Prosecutors’ Office quickly”.
A Polish diplomat said Poland will not join the office because it steps on national prosecutors’ toes. Sweden doesn’t see the value of an EU public prosecutor.
There is a “very concrete chance” that Italy will not join either, a diplomat said, because the bill was watered down by a handful of countries to kick too much investigating power back to national prosecutors. That made the office “not very meaningful”.
OLAF wants the public prosecutor’s office set up soon. Currently, 52% of OLAF fraud investigations turn into indictments. An EU office focused on cross-border fraud cased could change that rate, officials say.
“There is room for improvement,” the OLAF spokeswoman said.
The Commission wants the European public prosecutor to open cases involving corruption, money laundering and cross-border fraud fraud with EU money, including VAT fraud. Under the regulation, one main EU prosecutor would be put in charge of opening criminal cases with a web of deputy prosecutors and delegated prosecutors in member states with special independent status.
Enhanced cooperation was applied for the first time to divorce law in 2010. Last year, 18 countries used the enhanced cooperation measure to agree on new rules for property disputes between international couples. Before that, the EU unitary patent was the only law passed through enhanced cooperation in 2011.