European Parliament Splits with Member Governments on Romanian Anti-Graft Chief
Two committees of the European Parliament (EP) voted on Feb. 27, 2019 to nominate Laura Codruţa Kövesi, Romania’s former anti-corruption chief, to head the European Union’s new European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). While a vote by the full EP — scheduled to occur within the month — still has to be taken to formally select Kövesi, the move by the two EP committees all but guarantees a confrontation between the EP and the member governments of the EU, which voted via the Council of the EU on Feb. 20 to nominate France’s Jean-François Bohnert for the post.
Additionally, the imminent deadlock over Kövesi’s nomination is further complicated by the active campaigning of her home government in Bucharest against her candidacy in what critics describe as politically motivated attempts to sabotage her career and halt anti-corruption efforts across the EU.
The EU, through estimates produced by its own constituent bodies, loses billions of euros every year to fraud, corruption, and cross-border criminal activities. The European Court of Auditors — the EU’s financial watchdog — reported a net loss of over 6 billion euros (6.8 billion USD) from the EU budget between 2002 and 2016 due to fraud.
In April 2017, 16 EU member-states agreed to better collaborate on tackling EU fraud by establishing the EPPO as an independent investigative and prosecutorial office dealing with “crimes affecting the EU’s financial interests.”
The EPPO, headed by a European Chief Prosecutor, would thus fill a judicial role otherwise covered poorly by member-states’ national law enforcement and judicial authorities. European Delegated Prosecutors based in the various participating states would serve as an additional body of investigators and prosecutors that would complement and strengthen existing national legal systems.
In accordance with the agreed-upon procedure on selecting the senior members of the new EPPO, the Council of the EU convened a panel of 12 EU and national legal experts to compile a shortlist of candidates for nomination by the Council and the EP. On Feb. 4, the panel’s final shortlist was published by a Romanian member of the EP, with Kövesi ranking first, Bohnert second, and Andres Ritter of Germany third.
Initially believed to be the favorite for the position of European Chief Prosecutor, Kövesi faced a stiff campaign of opposition by Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), which accused her of bribery, malfeasance, and poor management during her time as head of Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). Romania’s control of the Presidency of the Council of the EU at the start of 2019 granted Bucharest additional resources and measures to stall — if not outright block — Kövesi from securing the job. Ultimately, at the Feb. 20 Council of the EU vote, Bohnart received 50 votes to 29 each for Kövesi and Ritter, with Eastern European member states acquiescing to the Romanian government’s calls to reject Kövesi.
The ensuing committee votes in the EP a week later after intense testimony by Kövesi clearly illuminated the divide between Parliament and member governments on concerns over the rule of law. Kövesi secured 26 votes to Bohnert’s 22 and Ritter’s 1 in the EP Committee on Civil Liberties while the Committee on Budgetary Control voted 12 to 11 to 1 to edge Kövesi over Bohnert and Ritter, respectively, as the nominee to head the EPPO.
Appointed to head the DNA in 2013, Laura Codruţa Kövesi spearheaded prosecutions against high-level graft in Romania, a country notorious for prevalent corruption and graft. The DNA’s anti-corruption investigations touched upon officials in all stations of Romanian political and judicial life, most notably the conviction of the sitting PSD leader in 2018. It also earned Kövesi much publicity and support amid episodes of entrenched corruption and political wrangling to bar prosecutors from investigating graft.
The situation came to a head in February 2018, when Romania’s Justice Minister sought Kövesi’s dismissal on grounds of “excess [...] behavior, discretionary behavior, defying the Parliament, challenging the Constitutional Court’s decisions and authority,” and damaging Romania’s image abroad. While Romania’s President declined to do so in April, an appeal by the justice minister to the Constitutional Court produced a verdict in May ruling that the president could not refuse the Justice Minister’s request. Accordingly, the President — also under threat of suspension and impeachment by the PSD-controlled government and Parliament — ousted Kövesi in July 2018.
Romania drew warnings from the EU by the end of 2018 over backsliding on commitments to anti-corruption efforts, judicial independence, and the rule of law, paralleling trends in other Eastern European member-states of the EU.
In an apparent intensification of the campaign against Kövesi’s EPPO candidacy, the PSD formed a new Romanian government agency in October 2018. It was tasked with investigating judicial officials with graft issued summons on Feb. 28 for Kövesi, to Bucharest to hear the charges against her and face questioning. The date for her appearance, scheduled for Mar. 7, coincides with the day the EP and the participating member governments are to begin negotiations over resolving the deadlock over the candidate for European Chief Prosecutor.