European Union to get a single public prosecutor

European public prosecutor's office will start work next year on investigating cross-border tax fraud and misuse of EU funds. [Website of the Lithuanian Presidency]

A Luxembourg-based chief prosecutor, tasked with investigating EU budget-related fraud, will start work next year after getting final approval from the European Parliament on Thursday (5 October).

The European Public Prosecutors Office, first envisioned in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, will coordinate national law enforcement efforts with the European police and law agencies Europol and Eurojust, as well as the EU anti-fraud office OLAF.

The prosecutor will have the power to coordinate police investigations, freeze and seize assets, and arrest suspects across borders.

Until now, only national authorities could investigate and prosecute crimes such as intentional misuse of EU structural funds or cross-border VAT fraud, but it was much more difficult because these authorities’ jurisdiction ends at national borders.

Member states gave their assent to the creation of the office in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. However, the legislation creating the agency, first put forward in 2013, has been delayed because of opposition from some member states.

Due to unanimity requirements, the European Council opted for ‘enhanced cooperation’, with only 20 of the EU’s 28 member states participating. Non-participating countries include the UK, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Malta and the Netherlands. They are free to join at any point in the future.

Barbara Matera, the centre-right MEP who guided the legislation through the Parliament, said that the new office will mean “the shortcomings of uncoordinated national investigations into the misuse of EU funds will be addressed.”

French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker both endorsed a possible expansion of the prosecutor’s role to areas like terrorism in a speech last month.

“Hopefully, the scope of the EPPO’s powers could in the near future also include trans-border crimes like terrorism and trafficking of human beings,” Matera said.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani also described today’s vote as the first step toward a more powerful EU prosecutor. “We are open to discuss possibilities of similar measures to combat terrorism and organised crime. Citizens expect Europe to be there where it can make a difference.”

“Terrorists have no borders,” he added. “To face terrorism we must therefore have no limits in the cooperation between national authorities.”

“Macron and Juncker are both looking ahead and have shown their support for broadening the remit of the EPPO to include the fight against terrorism and organised crime,” said German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht.

“The governments of the member states should also throw their weight behind such proposals. The EPPO has the potential to become a major European project and the doors are open to all EU countries to engage with it,” Albrecht said.

In a statement, the European Commission said the new office “can be a powerful tool to protect citizens even beyond its current competence for crimes against the EU budget.”

“The European Public Prosecutor’s Office could also be tasked also with prosecuting cross-border terrorist crimes,” the Commission said.

“Next year, the Commission will lay out the next steps on a future extension of the tasks of the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office. For now, our immediate priority is to establish an independent, strong and effective European Public Prosecutor to fight crimes against the EU budget, and to get it up and running as soon as possible.”

The European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the Parliament is against the creation of the office, a spokesperson for the group told Euractiv.

“We consider the EPPO to be another veiled attempt to encroach on member state’s law enforcement activities,” said the ECR spokesperson. “There are already well-established practices for member states to cooperate and coordinate with one another in this area.”

The Luxembourg office will have a chief prosecutor and prosecutors from all participating countries, who will be heading the day-to-day criminal investigations carried out by delegated prosecutors in all participating member states.

The Council is expected to give its rubber stamp to the measure next week.

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