Brussels v. Bucharest: The Kövesi Case and the Future of EU Anticorruption Policy

Last week Matthew suggested that the Romanian government’s fierce opposition to Ms. Laura Cordruta Kövesi’s candidacy to head the European Public Prosecutors’ Office is a good reason why she should be chosen.  Ms. Kövesi led Romania’s anticorruption agency, the Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie (DNA), until fired last July for what many observers believe was her refusal to back-off prosecuting senior members of the ruling party.  That her own government, one of Europe’s more corrupt, so opposes her, Matthew argued, is a sign that it knows, and fears, how effective she would be as Europe’s chief prosecutor.

In today’s guest post, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi offers a different perspective  – on why Ms. Kövesi is a candidate for the position and her government’s opposition to her selection and goes on to explain how the controversy arises from the European Union’s ham-handed intervention into Romanian politics, an intervention that has set back the country’s fight against corruption.  Professor Mungiu-Pippidi spear-headed several widely-praised anticorruption movements in Romania before becoming director of the European Research Centre for Anticorruption and State-Building and Professor at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance. She is the author most recently of The Quest for Good Governance: How Societies Build Control of Corruption. Cambridge University Press will soon release her Europe’s Burden: Promoting Good Governance across Borders.

The Western media obsessed over Laura Codruta’s Kövesi’s firing as chief of the Romanian anticorruption agency at the demand of the Romania’s Justice Minister. It is again obsessing about her now that she is the European Parliament’s candidate for the job of European Public Prosecutor (EPP). That institution was recently created at the instance of another Romanian, former Justice Minister Monica Macovei, currently an independent Member of European Parliament who, as Romanian Justice Minister, first appointed Ms. Kövesi. Having fired Ms. Kövesi, the Romanian government is now attacking her candidacy, publicizing allegations of misconduct while she ran the agency and calling for her to be questioned about them at precisely the time she is scheduled to appear before the European Parliament on her nomination.

Whether the European Union needs a new, union-wide public prosecution office is itself open to debate. Ms. Kövesi’s selection as one of three finalists to head the office is even more questionable.  It appears to be Europe’s way of taking revenge on the Romanian government for firing her. 

The European Public Prosecution Office is based on an enhanced cooperation procedure where EU member states participate on a voluntary basis (Romania will, Hungary won’t).  The office will exercise jurisdiction over EU funds and financial interests. It is not clear, however, just how necessary a new institution is.  A recent report from the European Audit Court shows that the main problem of past investigations of EU funds and financial interests was the time lag between opening a case and the moment when the administrative investigator, the European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, sent finalized cases to national prosecutors to pursue them.  Member state prosecution offices then discarded many cases as nearing terms of limitation or simply too expensive to prosecute. (OLAF, which has many excellent professionals, has been reorganized several times without much success, as some of the causes of its poor performance are political and external).

But regardless of that, Ms. Kövesi is widely-regarded as the chief champion of EU policies in Bucharest and has emerged, with the strong support of Ms. Macovei, herself a former anticorruption champion, as a top contender for the job.  Her emergence is particularly discomforting in Romania, for the government holds the EU Council rotating presidency. The stake of the confrontation is higher than these characters, although they play a large part: Romanians have succeeded in dragging the Europeans in an internal political feud, often framed simplistically as a battle between good and evil.

An EU Presidency with rule of law problems?

On January 1st, Romania assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union for the year. The situation is unprecedented, seeing that last November both the European Parliament and the European Commission strongly criticized Romania for backsliding on anticorruption.  The Europe of clean government now finds one of its most prestigious institutions headed by a government scorned for corruption.

The tension between the EU and Romania has a long history. As part of the price it paid for joining the EU, Romania (and Bulgaria) agreed to be subject for three years to the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), a highly-intrusive process for monitoring progress in curbing corruption.  Twelve years after accession, and while assuming the EU presidency the CVM remains in place. Some reports in between have been highly favorable to Romania (less so to Bulgaria). But changes in anticorruption legislation since 2017 and the firing of Ms. Kövesi put Romania’s Social-Democrat led government and European institutions on a collusion course. Furthermore, recent revelations show that the hunt for “big fish,” the main EC recommendation, coupled with EC demands to produce results has actually strained rule of law in Romania.

The European Commission has meanwhile promoted the Romanian example of convicting large numbers of high-level officials for corruption to Balkan states, Ukraine and Moldova as the most effective means for fighting corruption.  And indeed, Romania’s courts have convicted many senior officials. Between 2010 and the end of 2017, a total of 4,720 final verdicts in corruption trials were handed down, an average of nearly six hundred convictions per year, with a conviction rate of over ninety per cent. Those convicted include generals, 18 ministers including one prime minister, and members of parliament from every political party.  As the traditional Romanian parties, both communist, and anticommunists had all become equally corrupt by 2012, voters returned to government in 2012 the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Romania’s main post-communist party, which it had earlier (2004, 2008) voted out on grounds of corruption. The SPD’s support is not because it is any less corrupt but apparently simply because it perceived to support more egalitarian and efficient policies.

Romania has a semi-presidential system of government, one where a directly-elected president shares executive power with a government appointed by, and serving with the continuing confidence of, a democratically elected legislature.  In the 2014 presidential elections the Romanian public chose a member of the Liberal Party, the Lutheran mayor of Sibiu Klaus Iohannis, over the SDP candidate. The result has been a contentious cohabitation since. With more than half of the heads of Romanian 41 regional governments, the județes, and numerous mayors indicted for corruption by the time of the 2016 parliamentary elections, a critical mass of politicians seeking some form of judicial redress was created. In 2016, the SDP again won a clear election victory (even thought its government was forced to resign in 2015 under pressure from the street). It now also controls most of the județes and mayoral positions.

The majority in the parliament has used every opportunity since its latest victory to tame the anticorruption onslaught. It started with the vulnerable articles in the anticorruption law (those questioned by European Court of Human Rights, for instance) and in 2017 mounted a comprehensive legislative review meant to reduce what they claimed was the unaccountable power of the judiciary. While the 1994 Constitution, practically immune to reform given the amendment process, guarantees that the Romanian judiciary is fully independent – starting with a constitutional court, which frequently rules against the government — and continuing with a Judicial Council mostly elected by magistrates,  the criminal code is subject to parliamentary control.  It is here where a major battle has been fought.  Heartened by their two victories in a row (2012, 2016), and a two-thirds majority in the parliament, the SDP and its allies have sought o increase the rights of defendants in corruption trials and curtail the article making the “abuse of function” offense, the basis for many anticorruption convictions, a crime (Ordinance 13).

Supported by some Facebook-based civil society and opposition parties, the anticorruption agency has for all practical purpose declared war on the government, trying to indict the SDP ministers who sought to pass Ordinance 13 or even defend it publicly (like the Minister of Foreign Affairs). The Romanian Constitutional Court (RCC), which includes in its ranks Ms. Kövesi’s predecessor (who secured most its convictions),  eventually ruled that “The Public Ministry – the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the High Court of Cassation and Justice – the National Anticorruption Directorate has assumed its competence to carry out a criminal investigation in an area that exceeds the legal framework . . . .  Through its conduct, the Public Ministry – the Parquet of the High Court of Cassation and Justice – the National Anticorruption Directorate has acted ultra vires, assuming a competence that it does not possess – the control of the way of adopting a normative act. ” This decision sealed Ms. Kövesi’s fate with the SDP.

A trade-off between anticorruption and rule of law?

Some evidence exists that anticorruption policy under Ms. Kövesi ended in conflict with rule of law, although the corruption of her enemies is not under dispute. The prosecution has proven to be independent from the government, but not from other sources of influence. The Romanian Constitutional Court also ruled that the Romanian Intelligence Service (Serviciul Român de Informații RIS) overstepped its legal authority when it became too involved in anticorruption investigations. According to reports presented to parliament, the RIS sought 250,454 wiretap warrants during the anticorruption crackdown, beginning with 3,849 in 2005 and rising to 44,759 in 2014 (11 times as many), of which 99% were approved by the courts. (The Bucharest Appeals Court has never denied them a single warrant.) For 2015 alone, the last date when an RIS report was made public, “national security” warrants outnumbered corruption-related ones by four to one, with evidence spilling over from security warrants into prosecutors’ corruption files without proper authorization from judges. The total number of wiretaps was 16 times more than the FBI’s in the same year (in a country of under twenty million); the budget of RIS was twice of that of Germany’s intelligence service, the BVF, in 2017.

Furthermore, evidence assembled through freedom of information requests shows that the entire executive branch, parliament and the top courts have been wiretapped at least since 2010. Even though the constitutional court ruled in 2016 that RIS should no longer be empowered to organize wiretaps for the anticorruption prosecutors and other judicial authorities, this leaves plenty of material in the hands of the secret service to blackmail politicians and magistrates. Indeed, this might explain much of the political instability that the current president complains about.

Former President Traian Bãsescu, credited with unleashing the anticorruption crackdown in 2005 (he enjoyed two terms totaling ten years), saw many of his close relations and family imprisoned (or indicted) after he left office.  He has subsequently acknowledged that the crackdown has gone too far. He explained that he could not have won against the oligarchs without the secret services, but that his second term ended before he was able to put the latter under proper civilian control.  The 2018 CVM report ignores entirely the RIS’ role in undermining the rule of law and due judicial process, stating: “The operation of the intelligence services is not a matter for the EU and falls outside the CVM benchmarks.”

Another problematic aspect of Romania’s unstinting corruption campaign is that many of those declared anticorruption “heroes” during the crackdown years appear in retrospect to have been criminals themselves.  Two of the main prosecutors who sentenced oligarchs were afterwards convicted for corruption; others faced disciplinary procedures. The first head of the National Integrity Agency (Horia Georgescu), the head of the Anti-Organized Crime Unit (Alina Bica), the main businessperson close to RIS, who denounced targeted oligarchs (Sebastian Ghita), were all arrested under the current president, Mr. Iohannis.

Either the first anticorruption force (praised in EU CVM reports) was a gang of criminals who targeted the other gangs, in typical post-Soviet fashion (their appropriation of numerous public contracts and other spoils is well documented in several official investigations), or they were the political victims of a new presidency (as they claim). In either case, one would expect some concern in the EU’s CVM reports when yesterday’s prosecutors become today’s criminals. But there has been none. As Romanians are very litigation minded, thousands of complaints are routinely filed against magistrates (Ms. Kövesi herself has a score). There has been no mention also of other problematic facts in this annual CVM report, which could have all been corrected in due time. Under Ms. Kövesi, for instance, all three challengers to President Iohannis’ reelection bid (due fall 2019) were indicted by anticorruption prosecutors, (two were partially cleared by the courts in 2018). None were charged with a clear- cut case of bribery or other outright corruption offense.

Internal wiretaps by her own subordinates leaked to the media do not cast Ms. Kövesi or her inquiries in a particularly good light. She fired her most successful prosecutor, Doru Tulus, who managed to get Romania’s entire soccer establishment behind bars, accusing him of having wiretapped her (which he denies) after he declined to follow her targeting directions. She also failed to act against a branch of DNA in Ploiesti, which routinely violated procedures while handling all top political indictments. The Ploiesti case became a major embarrassment when an indicted politician who was cooperating with prosecutors recorded how together they faked evidence. By law, prosecutors should record everything, but in fact it was only the criminal who recorded these sessions. The Judicial Council eventually suspended the prosecutors involved. Finally, the fabulous conviction rate of over ninety per cent should also raise eyebrows. RCC ruled in late 2018 that Romania’s Supreme Court partly trespassed the random assignment of cases for the section judging top politicians, meaning that many cases must be retried. None of the corners cut or the procedural violations feature in the CVM report, where the stress on the high conviction rates seems to have created the incentive to pursue them whatever the cost.

Can corruption decrease without justice improving?

Wide-ranging objective and perception indicators both show some success for Romania’s anticorruption drive.  Much is attributable to its general increase in development and sound economic policies (privatization and liberalization of what used to be the source of much corruption – energy and utilities). As Romania doubled its income (with the public administration being an important beneficiary) and introduced transparency reforms, the administrative corruption from the early nineties has gone down considerably. The latest results from Eurobarometer  puts Romania close to the EU average on bribery (it was the worst in Europe 10 years ago). While corruption persists in the form of some government favoritism for public contracts, facilitation payments are rarer and procurement is becoming more competitive.

Romania’s anticorruption policies have failed, however, to create a meritocratic civil service, with the administration and public service remaining highly politicized and often incompetent. Romania’s anticorruption prosecutors have worked to cleanse institutions of corruption —  from soccer clubs to universities, but they could not by themselves turn corruption from the norm to the exception in ten years without substantial sector reforms. And those were sidelined in favor of criminal justice, which became increasingly instrumentalized, a vehicle for processing corruption cases.  Not even the judiciary itself was properly reformed during the anticorruption crackdown, let alone the rest of the state. Romanians remain the main suppliers of new lawsuits filled at the European Court of Human Rights and have the highest number of due process violations convictions per capita (more than Turkey and Russia).

While the SDP and its allies have certainly played a negative part, it is worth investigating if Romania’s anticorruption backsliding, as perceived by the European institutions, is not due also to how the battle against corruption has been waged (corners cut on procedures to secure convictions and the meddling of a secret service controlled by the President used against political parties on pretended ‘security’ grounds). The stress on political corruption led to an extreme politicization of anticorruption on the Italian model, with constitutional conflicts between various branches of government. Between 2016 and 2018, the RCC had to intervene several times, sometimes ruling in favor of the government, sometimes against (they struck down more than half its changes to the Criminal Code, for instance). Protesters routinely demand that the CCR is “depoliticized” and “lustrated” consequently- and this is how it started in Hungary and Poland. It’s not just one side which threatens rule of law.

What next?

A Ms. Kövesi as EPP would defy the Romanian Council Presidency and be a guarantee that Romanian’s main SDP leaders continue to have problems. The SDP President Liviu Dragnea has already petitioned the European Court of Justice for having his name brought up in a European fraud case where it did not initially feature, due to joint OLAF- DNA action. (A favorite company to which Mr. Dragnea had handed many public contracts previously lied to get EU funds from another source. It is unclear how and why he is involved in the investigation. When I blacklisted him for this relation years ago prosecutors cleared him: in fact, he had no serious legal troubles until chairing SDP after 2014.)

It is fear of cases like these being pursued that explains why the Romanian government so strongly opposes Ms. Kövesi’s candidacy.  On top of the friction created by her candidacy, the addition off several new recommendations to the CVM, when a year ago Romania had reportedly fulfilled all requests, will likely make the CVM hard to swallow by the Romanian government.  Additional recommendations will simply be asking more than the majority in the Parliament is willing to do. A victory in the European Parliament elections of this spring by European parties in favor of Article 7 (triggering the provision of the EU agreement allowing a qualified majority of member states to suspend Romania’ voting rights) combined with the SDP’s successful defense of its government (Romania legislative elections are scheduled only in 2020) means that increased confrontation will follow. The SDP will not back down, even if Dragnea falls from power.  The party has a majority in the parliament.  All the regional assemblies and a critical mass of elected rank and file politicians- mayors and judet heads- who are afraid of imminent sentencing or arrest support it as well.  On the EU side, it has now has found an ideal case to test Article 7.  Unlike Hungary, Romania does not have allies that will block the move. A November 2017 resolution against Romania in the European Parliament already drew a large cross-party majority.

Initial reforms to reduce the scope of “function abuse” offense and curb prosecutors’ power were popular even with non-SDP mayors.  They too have legal concerns.  The escalation of the last two years, however, swept aside such concerns.  The two sides now use whatever methods they can to get to one another. Ms. Kövesi’s hearings with the new Judicial Inspectorate (suspected to be a political weapon) are scheduled during her hearings in Brussels for the EPP job.  The secret service compensates for having lost court cases against Mr. Dragnea by leaking a massive number of secret documents him, (who tried to cut its budget). The service leaves suitcases with documents on people’s doorstep, which then are admitted as evidence with no problems.

Like Ms. Macovei, an old friend and ally who fought alongside me in the Coalition for Clean parliament and defended me in court when SDP politicians tried to intimidate us (they have become more civil meanwhile), I also cherished the hope that EU intervention would solve Romania’s corruption problem. I am now, however, more concerned that its efforts are damaging Romania’s democracy.

Romania’s remaining corruption problem is a problem of political development. We Romanians cannot solve it by repressive and democratic means simultaneously. We have to trust the institutions that hold the middle grounds- the Judicial Council, the Constitutional Court.  We must address Romania’s main problem:  mainstream parties completely discredited by corruption charges populated by politicians blackmailed by the secret service. Turnout is under forty percent in ordinary elections and might be half or less in elections for the European Parliament.

Professional evaluations of EC anticorruption effort (for the Balkans, DEVCO, ENP, EULEX, both by Audit Court and independent contractors) have been critical of its approach. In my forthcoming book for Cambridge University Press, Europe’s Burden: Promoting Good Governance across Borders, I examine over 100 cases of EU anticorruption intervention (through assistance and conditionality) from Greece to Ghana.  I do not find a single unmitigated success, not just Romania. I had thought perhaps Croatia is one, but Croatians disagree. So far, CVM’s good reputation rests mainly on what it has done on to prompt change in Romania and Bulgaria.  It is absurd, after Romania’s backsliding, to cling to the Romanian episode as a success story or claim that, because Romania has fallen out of favor with Brussels, Bulgaria is now suddenly doing better. It is perhaps time to audit the soundness of the EC anticorruption approach in both countries by measures other than how many recommendations of the European Commission have been adopted. The time has come to rethink the EU’s approach to anticorruption — in member states and in development assistance.

The EU needs to invest more in depth and sustainability, putting the Romanian fires out rather than stoking them.  We Romanians who support honest, effective government have to win majorities in elections, as we did with the Coalition for Clean Parliament in 2004 when we turned the tide.  Not just fight the those who win. While the EU worries Romania may follow in the footsteps of Hungary and Poland, I fear the EU is actually pushing it their way.

9 thoughts on “Brussels v. Bucharest: The Kövesi Case and the Future of EU Anticorruption Policy

  1. Thank you, Alina, for this extremely insightful post (lots of lessons here for other countries), and thanks, Matthew, for bringing this issue to light!

  2. There are two more recent, well-documented studies on anti-corruption in Romania.

    Iancu, B. (2019) Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi?: The Venice Commission as Norm Entrepreneur

    Mendelski, M. (2019) 15 Years of Anti-Corruption in Romania: Augmentation, Aberration and Acceleration

  3. I must congratulate this blog on not being afraid to stir a little controversy and publishing a piece which is so critical of all Romanian sides and in particular so critical of EU. Also longer than an ordinary post and by someone who is a renown corruption expert but writes less on Romania. I am left wondering why the media frames Romania as simplistic as it does, in particular since it seems that other academic authors, with less activist credentials than Dr. Pippidi are also skeptical towards the EU’s approach in Romania. And these on top of older anticorruption skeptics like Steve Sampson. Anyway, congratulation to authors and editors, good anticorruption should be realistic…

  4. This is why analyzing national internal political issues from the outside are always a risky business – there are, in most cases, two sides to any story and unless you are intimately aware with the country’s context, you will most likely only know one side. However, in this case, I still think that the way Romania is acting during the entire process does not help to prove its point. If there are legitimate legal concerns about the actions of Ms. Cordruta Kövesi, they should be presented to EU officials considering her for the post. Otherwise, EU is left to either believe the allegations and loose a potentially great professional (I believe, that was the evaluation of the independent experts who were evaluating all candidates) or to go against the concerns of Romania and risk hiring someone who will eventually be indicted. Currently, the way the Romanian Government acts does not help to add legitimacy to their claims – organizing hearings in Romania when Ms. Cordruta Kövesi was scheduled to be interviewed for the position in Brussels? That doesn’t seem like they are trying to help the EU make an informed hiring decision by providing evidence that would help to determine her professional fit – it seems like they are trying to make a point that they CAN do it, so they will…

    Again, I do not want to make claims that I know what is actually happening in Romania and whether the concerns raised by the current government are legitimate – I clearly could not and will not. But, in my opinion, the current actions of the country’s officials do not help to make their allegations believable and only add chaos to the issue.

    • “the way the Romanian Government acts does not help to add legitimacy to their claims – organizing hearings in Romania when Ms. Cordruta Kövesi was scheduled to be interviewed for the position in Brussels” – Ms. Kovesi stated she was summoned “on the very same date I was going to Brussels for the hearings”. The date she was summoned by the very same prosecutors she used to lord over – 15th of February. The date of the hearings – 26th of February. Go figure. During her tenure, Ms. Kovesi arrested or brought charges against numerous officials either as they were running for office or while in office, most of which have been cleared of all charges, mostly because the courts ruled “the crime does not exist/the “crime” is not provide for in the Criminal Code”. “Mere coincidence”, she repeatedly stated. A few examples: Dan Radu Rusanu (head of Romania’s Financial Supervision Authority), Mrs. Justice Barsan (Justice with Romania’s Supreme Court), Victor Ponta ( Prime Minister of Romania), Mr. Ludovic Orban (head of the National Liberal Party), Toni Grebla (Constitutional Court Justice), Florian Nitu (Attorney General of Romania). These are just the “big game” names for Ms. Kovesi. Countless other average Janes and Joes had their lives wrecked by willful and persistent abuse perpetrated with impunity (yes, there is no effective judges’ or prosecutors’ responsibility for their decisions, the statutes of limitations run out way before a sentence is issued). A former mayor (Mircia Gutau) served six and a half years’ term after which, following a ECHR/CEDO (European Court of Human Rights) decision his case was sent to trial and he was cleared of all charges. What/who could give him back a day of all those years spent behind bars? Yes, all of those who can afford the costs of CEDO proceedings will receive (some) damages. I – and every single one of my fellow Romanian citizens – will cover those damages.

      One extremely peculiar (and, in my opinion, salient) point is that over Ms. Kovesi’s tenure as either Attorney General or Head of the Anticorruption Department, all defendants/convicts were Romanian nationals. No foreign nationals (even in the numerous Microsoft cases!) were ever sent to court on corruption charges. Uncanny, I’d say… Perhaps because I am biased, as a (not only) Romanian national.

      I know, I know – it’s technical, and dry.

      So let’s all hail Kovesi – and hope Europe gets a taste of what we received around here. I am looking forward to watching footage of Saulius Skvernelis being paraded around with handcuffs slapped on him, whether he deserves it or not.

    • 1. “However, in this case, I still think that the way Romania is acting during the entire process does not help to prove its point.” What is “the way Romania is acting”? Unless you develop this in a fully-fledged argument this para is fluff.

      2. “If there are legitimate legal concerns about the actions of Ms. Cordruta Kövesi, they should be presented to EU officials considering her for the post.” They have been presented, by the Justice Minister. I believe they are part of “the way Romania is acting” above. You provide no arguments against, so again – fluff.

      3. “a potentially great professional (I believe, that was the evaluation of the independent experts who were evaluating all candidates)” – WHAT independent experts? What was the purport of their “examination”? What were the criteria used to examine ALL candidates? How, where and when were the criteria, process and results made available to EU citizens (you included)? Darn, so many questions, so few (as in ZERO) answers… Oh sorry – she is a “great professional” according to your one source of information – a website……..

      4 “Currently, the way the Romanian Government acts does not help to add legitimacy to their claims” – explained below, as you only used one “news site”, when my five links proved your statement to be…misinformed.

      5. “That doesn’t seem like they are trying to help the EU make an informed hiring decision by providing evidence that would help to determine her professional fit – it seems like they are trying to make a point that they CAN do it, so they will” – fluff.

      6. “But, in my opinion, the current actions of the country’s officials do not help to make their allegations believable and only add chaos to the issue” – and “your opinion matters how, especially after 1-5 above?

      Let’s try and use FACTS, RULES and PRINCIPLES, not NEWS and FEELINGS when REASONING.


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