Sven Lilienström, founder of the Faces of Democracy initiative, spoke with Laura Codruța Kövesi (48) about democracy, the newly established European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), and her fight against corruption, bribery, and money laundering in the EU member states.
Romanian-born Laura Codruța Kövesi was previously the head of the National Anticorruption Directorate in her country. The EPPO is the first supranational public prosecutor’s office in the world with the capacity to conduct cross-border investigations. The independent body was set up to prosecute and bring to justice offenses affecting the financial interests of the European Union, such as certain forms of subsidy fraud, corruption, and cross-border VAT fraud.
Ms. Kövesi, you are the head of the newly established European Public Prosecutors Office (EPPO). How significant are democracy and democratic values to you personally?
I grew up in a communist regime and I have still very vivid memories of what life was like. And then I was lucky enough to be part of the long transformation process of Romania into a democratic society, of which the accession to the European Union was one of the culminating points.
This is why for me democracy is not an abstract definition that I could have learned in school, together with a set of values upon which it is founded. It is a praxis, an engagement. I have a personal experience with how fragile and precious this way of organizing human society is, how hard we need to work to preserve it. So, to answer your question: to me, democracy is fundamental, just as the air I breathe.
The EPPO is the first supranational public prosecutor’s office in the world. When you took office, you spoke of a “historic moment.” Why does Europe need its own public prosecutor’s office, and how will its citizens benefit from it?
For the first time, a European Union body will investigate, prosecute and bring to trial criminal offenses. There is no precedent for this. No one but the EPPO can prosecute fraud against the EU budget committed after 1 June 2021 in the 22 participating Member States.
The establishment of the EPPO has many wide-ranging implications. For instance, I have no doubt that it will trigger further harmonization in the field of criminal law, which is at the core of national sovereignty.
From a citizen’s perspective, the EPPO is a concrete answer to an old grievance: by opening the borders, we have not only allowed people and companies to thrive, we have unfortunately also allowed criminal organizations to develop their operations and grow. The EPPO is the first adjustment we need to do in this respect.
We want to make the EPPO a center of excellence for the confiscation of criminal assets. I am convinced that the EPPO will be a game changer in the fight against cross-border VAT fraud.
Beyond its contribution to increasing the general feeling of security, the EPPO is the first really sharp tool to defend the rule of law in the EU. By applying the very simple principle of equality before the law, the EPPO will play a crucial role in making the trust of the European citizens in the Union stronger than ever.
Until 2018, you were the head of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) in Romania. How exactly do you intend to fight corruption, bribery, and money laundering in the EU member states?
First, it needs to be well understood that the competence of the EPPO is limited to corruption, bribery, and money laundering in the participating Member States when affecting the financial interests of the European Union only! Furthermore, we have a complex structure and have to operate as a single office in 22 different judicial systems, according to 22 different criminal laws and criminal procedural laws. This to say that we have huge challenges ahead of us.
My experience as a prosecutor can be boiled down to a few simple principles: work hard, never give up, and always abide by the law. Only by working professionally, being consequent and by respecting the law all the time, you can gain and keep the trust of the citizens. I will follow these principles in my role as European Chief Prosecutor. The good thing is that, in fact, you are never alone. At the EPPO, just as at the DNA, I have a good and motivated team of courageous prosecutors.
At least some of the population wishes for more isolation and national autonomy. What do you say to people who maintain that prosecutorial investigations are the core of national autonomy?
Yes, they are. But we need to evolve if we want to be credible and efficient. Read the reports from Europol, talk to the practitioners about the practical difficulties they encounter in the fight against cross-border crime in general, and economic and financial criminality in particular.
What good does it make to keep these powers at national level when criminal organizations have reached turnovers comparable to those of the biggest global corporations? The truth is that we are badly behind the curve. Now we can either try to catch up or continue to pretend there is no problem.
Hungary, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, and Ireland form a group of countries that refuse to cooperate with the EU’s public prosecutor’s office. Is the EPPO in reality merely a “toothless tiger”?
This is not accurate. These Member States did not join the enhanced cooperation establishing the EPPO, so they are not part of EPPO. This does not mean that they refuse to cooperate with the EPPO.
We will work very closely with their respective national prosecution services. We are in touch with all of them and have, for example, already concluded a working arrangement with the Office of the Prosecutor General in Hungary. We can still investigate citizens and companies from those countries if they have committed crimes in a Member State that does participate in the enhanced cooperation of EPPO.
The actual power of the EPPO has to be measured against its action in the participating Member States. I am sure you will soon see that we are anything but a “toothless tiger.”
In your inaugural speech, you also stressed that fraud with public funds is “a serious threat to democracy.” Where exactly do you believe the danger lies, and do you think it is underestimated?
White collar crimes are under-reported, underestimated, often even tolerated, to the benefit of organized criminal organizations that aspire to subvert and replace legitimate authorities. In certain circumstances, these organizations do not shy away from resorting to extreme violence. It is not by coincidence that, when giving solemn in front of the European Court of Justice, I had invited representatives of the families of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova. What these journalists were uncovering is the aspiration of fraudsters to capture the State. Once the State is captured, its institutions stop working for the common good, and democracy is subverted. This threat is very real, and very common.
I think it is underestimated because in most of the cases, it is not obviously violent. And also, because, culturally, we have grown accustomed to be more tolerant with corruption.
Before starting our operations, we did a survey among the participating EU Member States about the number of investigations within our scope of competence they have conducted in the last four years. In some countries there are hundreds, even thousands. In other countries, there are close to none. That makes me wonder about the priority given to this fight. Because I know that there are no clean countries.
What do you like to do most of all in your leisure time, and what objectives have you set yourself for the next years – professionally and privately?
Professionally, I have to admit that my current job is the most challenging I had so far. I want to put all my professional experience and energy in a successful mandate as European Chief Prosecutor: to win the trust of the citizens proving that EPPO is an independent, strong, and efficient institution and that the law is equal for everybody.
For my private life, I would like to spend more time with my family.