The European Commission today (17 July) proposed establishing a European Prosecutor’s Office, in an attempt to improve the investigation and conviction of criminals who defraud the EU. British Conservatives immediately said they would opt out of the plan.
The Commission wants to improve Union-wide prosecution of criminals who defraud EU taxpayers by establishing a European Public Prosecutor's Office and by reinforcing the procedural guarantees of the EU anti-fraud office OLAF.
Britain's ruling Conservatives immediately rejected the idea, leaving the remaining 27 EU members with the option of continuing without Britain, using the so-called 'enhanced cooperation' procedure (see background).
The UK announced in October 2012 that it would opt out 'en masse' from EU police and crime laws and cherry pick legislation it wants to adhere to, such as recent EU proposals on cybercrime.
The Commission's move, however, appears long overdue in the light of various scandals involving EU funds, which British eurosceptics were quick to criticise.
It also comes amid warnings by the OLAF chief that the European Union itself would be at stake if it was unable to properly address the issue of corruption.
OLAF head Giovanni Kessler did not appear at today's Commission announcement, as he faced pressure from MEPs over the handling of the case which led to the resignation of former Health Commissioner John Dalli last year.
Recent experience has shown that for the same crime involving EU funds, defendants were acquitted in Bulgaria and given heavy sentences in Germany.
A table produced by the Commission showed that relatively few cases transferred by OLAF to the member states prosecutors' office eventually led to conviction of wrongdoers, although the rate varied significantly among countries. Sweden had the highest rate, with all of the five cases transferred leading to conviction. The lowest was Slovakia, with no convictions for 16 cases transferred.
The record-holder of transferred cases is Romania with a total of 225, and a conviction rate of 23.4%. Second comes Germany with 168 cases and a 57% conviction rate. The average rate of conviction for the EU is 42.3%.
The Commission proposes to further strengthen OLAF's governance and to reinforce procedural guarantees when its representatives are in the field performing their investigations.
OLAF's role is also changed considerably under the Commission proposal, as the EU's anti-fraud office will no longer carry out administrative investigations into EU fraud, leaving full competence to the proposed new European Public Prosecutor's Office. However, OLAF would remain responsible for investigations in areas which don't fall under the authority of the European Public Prosecutor. These include irregularities affecting the EU's financial interests, and serious misconduct or crimes committed by EU staff without a financial impact.