The European commission published plans on Wednesday (17 July) for a European Public Prosecutor (EPPO) as part of efforts to clamp down on fraud committed against the EU budget.
“The European Commission is delivering on its promise to apply a zero tolerance policy towards fraud against the EU budget,” EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding said.
The EPPO will have the power to conduct, prosecute, and bring to justice its own EU-wide criminal investigations in co-ordination with member state authorities against people suspected of defrauding the EU.
And unlike any other EU law and justice agency, the EPPO will also have the power to order member state law enforcement authorities to launch an investigation into suspected fraudsters.
“What we cannot do today is to require a national law enforcement to do an investigation,” said an EU official close to the file, with conservative estimates suggesting around €500 million are defrauded from the budget each year.
The EU official noted that local prosecutors in some member states are overburdened with other case files and tend not to view crimes against the EU budget as a priority.
The complexity, costs, and extra-jurisdictional nature of investigating such crimes are possible factors in the overall low conviction rates.
There are some 2,500 cases on file each year. On average, less than half end in a prosecution.
Results among national prosecutors vary widely across member states.
Cases in Slovakia, Spain, and Hungary netted zero convictions between 2006 and 2011. Austria, Estonia, Sweden, and Finland landed between 91 percent to 100 percent conviction rates.
The aim is to increase overall conviction rates via the dedicated EU-level office.
“Many criminals who have stolen EU taxpayer money are getting away with their crimes,” Reding said.
She noted that “the establishment of such an office does not come out of the blue” with the Lisbon Treaty calling for the setting up of such an office.
Reding described the EPPO as a decentralised structure, integrated into national judicial systems.
The EPPO core will be composed of the European Public Prosecutor and four deputies. Another five delegated prosecutors will help the core office to allocate cases.
Member states will also each nominate a delegated prosecutor for EPPO approval.
The delegated prosecutors will carry out the investigations and prosecutions in member states, using national staff and applying national law.
“They will be national prosecutors and part of the European Public Prosecutors Office,” said Reding.
The EPPO’s role is to co-ordinate the investigations conducted by the delegated prosecutors.
Wiretapping, searching premises, seizing computers, or freezing assets will require a court order with national courts able to challenge the EPPO’s investigative methods.
Eurojust will provide infrastructure, finances, and human resources.
Olaf, the EU’s anti-fraud office, which is to be stripped of its budget surveillance powers, will provide the staff.
Reding will attend the informal justice and home affairs meeting in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius over the weekend where she will present the proposal to member state ministers.
“I know from a long discussion with many colleagues and ministers of justice that there are more than the nine [member states] required by the Treaty who would like to go ahead,” she noted.
Denmark opted out of the EPPO and the UK and Ireland can voluntarily opt-in at a later date, according to the Lisbon Treaty rules. The UK, however, has already stated it does not want take participate.
Official negotiations with member states kick off in Autumn. The commission hoping the office will be up and running by the beginning of 2015.