EPPO nomination – a ticking time bomb?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Norica Nicolai [European Parliament]

The focus throughout Laura Codruța Kövesi’s stewardship of Romania’s anti-corruption directorate has been on ‘getting scalps’ rather than on serving justice, writes Norica Nicolai.

Norica Nicolai is a member of the European Parliament (ALDE group), a former Romanian lawyer and prosecutor.

The European Public Prosecutor’s Office, established under the EU enhanced cooperation arrangements to which 22 member states have signed up to date, will be an important new institution. It will act as a single prosecution service across all participating member states in cases of corruption or fraud involving EU funds or cross border VAT fraud.

The EPPO has the potential to address the problem of fraud against EU funds and revenues, which has bedevilled the community for decades.

Because of its potential significance, it is critical that the launch of EPPO should be achieved without controversy. Unfortunately, it has been dragged into an unnecessary and avoidable political showdown and, unless there is an outbreak of common sense, it could undermine EPPO before it even opens its doors.

The entirely avoidable controversy about the nomination of the former head of Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) as, potentially, the first head of EPPO could not come at a worse time.

The EU, as President Macron recently pointed out, has come to a major crossroads. There is a clash between the aspiration of those who want ‘more Europe’ and those who would prefer to see Europe consolidate her position, to build on its achievements, to grow more organically and to improve the way it does business.

Both ‘sides’ are becoming increasingly entrenched. Both are all too willing to cast their opposition in demon’s clothing. Neither side is willing to see the other’s viewpoint. This is not only foolhardy but it is ultimately destructive.

The efforts that have been made to copper-fasten the nomination of Laura Codruța Kövesi, the former Romanian magistrate and head of Romania’s DNA, to become the EU’s first top prosecutor, at a time when Ms Kövesi faces very serious accusations as to how the DNA operated under her leadership shows a reckless disregard for the very principles that those who have flocked to her cause purport to uphold.

During the period of Ms Kövesi’s leadership, DNA has been accused of reverting to the tactics of the bad old days.

In particular, DNA is accused of grossly violating the principle of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty – a supposedly core EU principle.

The Bureau has been accused of illegal collaboration with elements in the Romanian intelligence services, wiretapping citizens and leaking private information as part of the process of destroying public reputations.

DNA has been accused of stage-managing the public degrading of individuals who have been accused of wrongdoing before they have ever had “their day in court”.

Arrests, particularly of political figures, were stage-managed with those arrested being paraded in handcuffs for the TV cameras. DNA went about its business in a way that ignored the fact that even politicians have rights – irrespective of the allegations against them.

In high profile cases, prosecution files are widely leaked in a flagrant effort to undermine defendants’ credibility before they ever make it to the Court: the court of public opinion was fully and negatively engaged before any trial got underway.

Judicial, public service and political careers have been thrashed on the basis of flimsy ‘evidence’ that failed to stand up to examination in court when cases moved to trial.

The DNA under Ms Kövesi’s leadership excelled in the practice of ‘squeezing’ offenders to make confessions implicating other, bigger fish,’ with the promise of lesser sentences in their own cases – a practice that was honed to perfection during the Ceausescu and Stalinist eras.

The focus throughout Ms Kövesi’s stewardship of DNA has been on ‘getting scalps’ rather than on serving justice.

During the hearings in the Parliament, Ms Kövesi and her political supporters insisted that the results she had achieved ‘speak for themselves’ – so too do the tactics used to get the ‘results’ but those tactics were airbrushed out of the picture.

In the hearings, the cheerleaders for Ms Kövesi seemed more intent on winning a hollow political ‘victory’ rather than on checking facts or picking an appropriate person to head what could be a significant new European agency. That could prove to be a very costly mistake for Europe.

The point can be made that Ms. Kövesi and the DNA staff that worked under her direction are, like every other citizen, entitled to be considered innocent of all of the accusations levelled against them until proven guilty. That is not in dispute here.

However, in an appointment such as that of the European Public Prosecutor, the cautionary principle should apply. Evidence of political bias, of wide scale abuse, of improper engagement with intelligence service operatives, of staging ‘show trials’, political partisanship and of gross disrespect of citizens’ rights cannot be simply swept under the carpet as ‘inconvenient facts’.

If public confidence is to be built into the office of European Public Prosecutor, there should not be even a hint of bias or prejudice in the initial appointee. Like Caesar’s wife, Europe’s first Chief Prosecutor must also be above suspicion.

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