OLAF chief pleads for European public prosecutor

The head of the EU anti-fraud office OLAF, Giovanni Kessler, pleaded yesterday (5 December) for the establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office as a formal EU institution.

Kessler made the statement at a conference on corruption in European states organised by the European Parliament’s Socialists & Democrats group.

The OLAF chief took as an example a case involving fraud with EU funds between Germany and Bulgaria, in which the same defendants were condemned by the German court but were cleared in Bulgaria.

If the Union is unable to address the issue of corruption properly and in an efficient way “the European Union as such is at stake”, he pleaded.

Kessler stressed that corruption was now increasingly of a trans-national nature, which could not any longer be attributed to one country. He illustrated it with the case of a Bulgarian entrepreneur obtaining EU funds, by presenting fake, overinflated invoices, issued by a German company.

“What happened? Two prosecutions: one in Germany, one in Bulgaria, two court cases: one in Germany and one in Bulgaria, two different results,” Kessler said.

He didn’t give any names, but SAPARD court case is well known, as it is monitored by the European Commission under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), set in place to accompany Bulgaria’s EU accession. It concerns fraud to the level of €7.5 million involving the Special Accession Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development, or SAPARD.

The main defendant, Mario Nikolov, and five other Bulgarian nationals were sentenced in 2010 to 6 to 10 years in prison. Two German nationals involved were sentenced and put in jail in their country already in 2008.

A Bulgarian appellate court acquitted Nikolov and the other defendants in September, citing procedural mistakes by prosecutors.

“We need to have a European reaction, a European answer, and the answer is to have a European Public Prosecutor’s Office in charge. This is in the European treaty, the Commission is working on it, and I hope the Parliament is also on track,” Kessler said.

Assange appears on screen in Parliament

Another speaker at the conference, investigative journalist Atanas Chobanov, who is editor of the website Bivol.com, a partner of Wikileaks. In a powerpoint presentation, he showed various cables from the US Embassy in Sofia on Borissov’s alledged murky past.

As part of his presentation, Chobanov also spoke live via Skype with the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who said that the US leaders were eager to deal with corrupt politicians across the world, in order to better control them.

Assange’s appearance on screen in Parliament infuriated the S&D group which hosted the meeting, EURACTIV has learned, as Chobanov has reportedly been told not to promote the controversial activist, who lives as a refugee in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

MEP Bill Newton-Dunn (ALDE, UK) said that in spite of the fact that his party, the Liberal Democrats, were part of the governing coalition in the United Kingdom, his country’s intended opt-out from EU cooperation on police and criminal matters was “complete insanity, the most stupid thing one could do”.

He also referred to the corruption case mentioned by Kessler, comparing it with the US outlaws Bonnie and Clyde.

MEPs and Transparency International chief of the EU office Jana Mittermaier argued to illustrate their thesis that corruption has aggravated the situation in the countries which have been mostly hit by the crisis. Mittermaiter flagged the new ranking of countries according to the perceived degree of corruption, according to which Greece has scored the worst ranking and Italy has also sank to the bottom of the table.

MEP Ana Gomes (S&D, Portugal) said she spoke in 2010 with the then-Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who told her how much the crisis had to do with the crisis, and corruption, and corruption had to do with “the capture of politicians by corrupt people”.

The centre-right EPP group held a separate conference on corruption, simultaneously with the one organised by the S&D group, which was advertised much earlier.

Reportedly, the EPP group wanted to divert attention from the S&D event, where the alledged murky past of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, EPP-affiliated, was expected to be discussed.

The EPP group released a communiqué, quoting MEP Veronique Mathieu, who also pleaded for putting in place the office of the European Prosecutor.

“The pernicious nature and the rapid changes of direction of organised crime and corruption should not be an excuse to give up fighting against them.

If the tools at our disposal are not enough to block them, we must innovate. The establishment of a European Prosecutor in charge of the fight against international corruption and fraud affecting the financial interests of the European Union is vital".

MEP Salvatore Iacolino added: "Stepping up the fight against corruption is a commitment that Member States have to pursue by enhancing the effectiveness of law enforcement measures, taking into account that bribery costs about 770 billion Euros a year globally - 120 billion in Europe alone - and affects all EU countries at the level of central and local government, and in the private sector. Public procurement, supply, waste and health sectors are most at risk.

"It is estimated that corruption could increase the total cost of public procurement contracts by 20-25%". said Salvatore Iacolino.

"Fighting these crimes and stopping the 'networks of relationships' between organized crime, politics, business and public administration requires a preventive, coherent and coordinated approach at European level to strengthen the efforts of national governments as well as overcoming vulnerabilities and weaknesses in regulations in some Member States," said Veronique Mathieu.

Matthieu and Iacolino also pleaded in favour of “innovative instruments”, such as the so-called 'white lists': lists of virtuous companies that have demonstrated high standards of transparency and integrity in participation in public procedures.

The Editor of Bivol Atanas Chobanov has sent EURACTIV a reaction to explain why he did a Skype conference with Assange, in spite of having been asked by the S&D group not to do so.

“Our website, run by Mr. Assen Yordanov and myself, is the official partner of Wikileaks since March 2011. We published the US diplomatic cables related to Bulgaria, as provided to us by the whistle-blower organization. After the publications, we faced a violent smear campaign in Bulgarian newspapers, but also in a Brussels-based English language newspaper, claiming that we actually didn't have access to WikiLeaks documents and were inventing stories to blackmail the Bulgarian political and business "elite."

“Due to the importance of the seminar and the shocking nature of our revelations before the EP audience, it was of crucial importance for us to provide evidence that we are using real data.

“We asked the organizers by email to provide us an additional 5 min. and some technical assistance to use Skype in reaching Mr. Assange and asking him to testify that his organization Wikileaks is our real source. The organizers said that Mr. Assange was not on the list of invited speakers; there was no way to extend the presentation beyond the allocated 15 minutes, and there were technical issues in making a conference call on Skype. “We decided to use our own setup to give the floor to Mr. Assange - not to promote him, but to back our statements.

“We believe that it was very important to be able to convince the organizers that our media, which is relatively unknown abroad, is presenting the results of serious investigative research on corruption and organised crime in Bulgaria. Our presentation can be seen here: https://www.bivol.bg/bivol-ep-conf.html

The European Public Prosecutor's Office would be responsible for investigating, prosecuting and bringing to justice those who damage assets managed by or on behalf of the EU.

The European Council may adopt a decision extending the powers of the European Public Prosecutor's Office to include serious crime having a cross-border dimension.

The discussion on the European Prosecutor found its way into the European Convention, and ultimately, the Lisbon Treaty. For the first time, Article 86 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU allows for the possibility of establishing the European Public Prosecutor's Office.

The Commission has already done preparatory work in this area, starting with the well known 'Corpus Juris' study.

The European Public Prosecutor's Office may be established from Eurojust by adopting a series of regulations following a special legislative procedure. This requires the Council to act unanimously after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

In the absence of unanimity, a group of at least nine EU countries can go ahead with the project, by establishing enhanced cooperation.

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