There’s so much bad news in the anticorruption world these days that it’s hard to keep up. But I’ve recently been reading up on the ongoing debates in Europe over the selection of the first European Public Prosecutor, and I think this issue deserves some discussion, and even more attention from the anticorruption community in Europe and around the world.
Here’s the quick background for those who aren’t familiar with this issue: Back in 2017, 20 EU Member States agreed to create a new institution called the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), headed by a European Public Prosecutor, with authority to investigate and prosecute (in national courts) offenses connected to the EU’s financial interests, such as fraud or embezzlement involving EU funds. (22 EU countries have now agreed to participate in the EPPO system.) The EPPO is scheduled to begin operations in late 2020 or early 2021, and the EU is in the process of selecting the first EPPO head. The three finalists are a Jean-Francois Bohnert of France, Andres Ritter of Germany, and Laura Corduta Kovesi from Romania. Ms. Kovesi had been considered a frontrunner, and still might secure the post, but her candidacy is under attack from her own government. Indeed, it seems that intense lobbying against her by the Romanian government is what led the Committee of Permanent Representatives in the European Union to back Bohnert for the job, though the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs voted to support Kovesi. The selection process is still ongoing, and it’s not clear when a final decision will be made. For those getting cold feet about Kovesi, though, it seems that the opposition of her home government is a significant reason.
In my view that’s not only wrong, but backwards. The Romanian government’s no-holds-barred, all-out attack on Kovesi is one of the best arguments for appointing her. I don’t know enough about the candidates to have a considered view of which of them, all else equal, would do the best job heading the EPPO, but assuming that they are all basically well-qualified, the Romanian ruling party’s panic over the prospect that Kovesi might get the job is exactly why she should be appointed, for two reasons:
- First, the fact that government of one of the most corrupt countries in the EU—one with the greatest theft and misappropriation of EU funds—is terrified that Kovesi might get the job, but apparently fine with either of the other two choices, is strong evidence that she’ll be more effective. After all, if we were selecting the city police chief, and we found out that the local mafia boss strongly objected to candidate A, but was fine with candidates B and C, that seems like a point in candidate A’s favor, not a strike against her. (And if you think it’s unfair to compare the government of an EU member state to an organized crime family, well, read on.)
- Second, the Romanian government is conducting a fairly blatant attempt to misuse its justice system in order to interfere with an EU decision process, in the context of a corrupt and increasingly illiberal ruling party. The EU is already struggling to deal with backsliding in Hungary and Poland, and it needs to show that it won’t be bullied or manipulated, and that if Member States want to be treated as good EU citizens, they need to comport with basic norms.
Now, given that I just made those statements with what sounds like great confidence, and the rest of this post may adopt a similarly confident tone, I should immediately add the caveat that I am not an expert on Romania, I’ve never been there, I don’t speak the language, and all I know about the situation, as the old saying goes, is what I read in the papers. So if you want to say I don’t know what I’m talking about, fair enough, you have a point. But I’ve been reading a lot about this, and what I’ve read seems both sufficiently scary, and sufficiently clear, to merit comment. Moreover, I think the Romanian government’s strategy relies in part on non-experts feeling like they don’t really understand what’s going on, so that it starts to feel like that, in the face of conflicting narratives (a sort of he said/she said), it’s best just to avoid controversy by supporting a “safe” choice for EPPO head. We’ve got to resist that impulse. Appointing someone other than Kovesi may seem like the safe choice, but that’s exactly why Kovesi is the right choice. Continue reading