Laura Kövesi at the headquarters of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office in Luxembourg City: “Our victory will be achieved when people trust in EPPO.”-Foto: Sven Becker / DER SPIEGEL
In her first year as head of the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office, Laura Kövesi has seized three times as much money as her agency costs. It’s not just criminals she’s fighting – but also bureaucracy.
https://www.spiegel.de-By Lina Verschwele and Sven Becker (Photos) in Brussels, Bucharest and Luxembourg City
If you’re interested in meeting with Laura Kövesi, you must first pass through a security gate. Once inside, a staff member then opens several doors and leads the way through long hallways to a visitor’s room. A bodyguard peers in briefly, and then Kövesi is standing in the doorway – black hair, a broad smile and an impressive appearance. Kövesi is 1.82 meters (five feet, 11 inches) tall, wears a jacket with shoulder pads and looks strong enough to walk through walls. It seems as though she has found her calling.
The building where she works is located on Avenue John F. Kennedy in Luxembourg City, an office building with 18 floors. From here, Kövesi has headed the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), with a staff of around 250, for the past year. The agency is tasked with uncovering corruption, fraud and other financial crimes that affect the European Union’s budget. Already in the first half of the year, the authority opened 576 investigations involving billions of euros in potential damages to the EU budget. For the first time ever, an EU institution is now permitted to investigate the member states, bring charges on its own and order the seizure of assets. Hardly surprising, perhaps, that she’s not exactly welcome everywhere. And she isn’t fond of giving interviews, she informs us just as we get started.
Kövesi, 49, moved to Luxembourg City for the new job. The affluent city with its leisurely pace is foreign to her, and when she praises her new home, an ironic smile quickly follows. At each step of her career, she says, she thought she had the hardest job in the world. “When I came here, I thought this is indeed the most difficult and interesting job.”
Things still feel a bit quiet in the building, with many of the rooms on the 18 floors of the headquarters still empty. The majority of her staff are spread out across the 22 EU member states that have opted to participate in the work of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. For security reasons, visitors aren’t actually supposed to see her office, but we’re allowed a peak inside. There’s a picture of the Virgin Mary on her desk, but otherwise, there is nothing personal that might reveal anything about the woman who works here.
The new prosecutor wants to show that Europe is going after those who would seek to do harm to European taxpayers. “Our victory will be achieved when people trust in EPPO,” she says.
Ultimately, that victory will be determined by whether the EU can take joint action against financial misdeeds. At the moment, that doesn’t seem to be the case. For one, tax haven Ireland still hasn’t agreed to cooperate with the agency, and neither have Poland and Hungary, two countries that have been undermining their own judiciary for years.
Beyond that, much depends on Kövesi when it comes to whether the European investigative agency can find success. It’s basically an impossible task: As Europe’s top investigator, she’ll have to make enemies in nearly two dozen countries. At the same time, though, she also has to get as many countries on her side as possible to increase her agency’s resources and influence. She must retain her independence and keep her distance while networking at the same time. Most importantly, however, she will have to raise the EPPO’s profile in Europe. Each day is a struggle to determine when she can shed the armor in which she has encased herself.
Kövesi first applied for the job three years ago. A video of her job interview shows her appearing in front of members of the European Parliament on the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee. The chamber is full, and the members of parliament peer down at the candidates from their seats. Three candidates were still in the running, and each was given seven minutes to introduce themself. At the time, Kövesi was still a stranger to the EU stage. In the Council of Ministers, the powerful EU body representing the leaders of the member states, a competing candidate was the clear favorite.
“I know you’ve heard a lot of bad things about me.”
Even her own government in Romania was against Kövesi. In the Romanian capital city of Bucharest, politicians were rallying against her, and state-affiliated TV stations ran negative campaigns. Hackers even set out to spy on her family and friends. “I am aware that you have been exposed to a lot of negative information about me,” she told the European parliamentarians. “I have absolutely nothing to hide.”
Kövesi grew up in Mediaș, a tranquil town in the Carpathian Mountains. She studied law in Cluj Napoca long before Romania became a member of the EU. Her biggest international appearance came as a teenager at 16, when she played basketball on the national youth team, which came in second at the 1989 European Championships. Even on her basketball team, Kövesi was the real leader, her coach told journalists in interviews.
At the beginning of her career, many underestimated Kövesi. Her father advised her to become a notary public, but Kövesi ignored that advice and pursued a career as a public prosecutor.
In her mid-20s, she began investigating organized crime in Sibiu. At 33, she became Romania’s first female attorney general, bringing a breath of fresh air to the old boys’ clubs. She established best-practice cases and recovered taxpayers’ money through confiscations. “It was a revolution,” recalls Romanian lawyer Marius Bulancea, who met Kövesi in the 2000s and now works under her at the EPPO.
In 2013, Kövesi took over as the head of the national anti-corruption agency DNA. The office was a thorn in the side of the government in Bucharest, which tried to hinder its work by bestowing it with only a paltry budget. At the time, Romania ranked 69th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, a poor ranking that many politicians in the country were just fine with.
During Kövesi’s term in office, though, corruption became the dominant issue in the country. Following a fire in the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv that killed 65 people, with some of the victims later succumbing to infections in the hospital because disinfectants had been diluted, thousands took to the streets with banners reading: “Corruption Kills.” Kövesi’s agency took up the investigation and she became an idol of the anti-corruption movement. To this day, images of her can still be found gracing the facades of buildings in the Romanian capital city. Kövesi’s investigators brought high-ranking politicians and businessmen to trial, including two former prime ministers and 11 cabinet members, some of whom were still in office.
The Romanian government, meanwhile, planned to introduce a law during Kövesi’s term that would make corruption a punishable offense only if it exceeded 44,000 euros. And when a corruption investigation was launched against Liviu Dragnea, the head of the ruling party, the cabinet had had enough and began to actively get rid of the troublesome prosecutor. She received threats and had cause to fear for her life. She describes her ultimate firing from the position in 2018 by President Klaus Iohannis as “the worst moment in my life.” She still recounts the incident with anger, even though the European Court of Human Rights later ruled that her dismissal had been unlawful.
In the meantime, though, Kövesi had acquired quite a reputation in Brussels for her fearlessness. Under pressure from the European Parliament, she was appointed head of the EPPO in 2019, which would commence its operations two years later. “No one embodies EPPO’s values the way she does,” says former competitor Andrés Ritter, who is now part of her team. Monika Hohlmeier, chair of the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee, calls her “the embodiment of justice.”
Admired for Courage
Parliament placed its trust in Kövesi in 2019. More than the others, she stood for the will to take on even the powerful. And that reputation is important for the EPPO, because top lawyers in the private sector make more money than they do working for the EU. Kövesi’s courage and her expertise, however, are a magnet that can outweigh that. Still, transforming the EPPO from an idea into an efficient institution would require more: political skill, diplomacy, contacts – and, most importantly, good investigators throughout Europe.
Jörg Schröder is one of 11 prosecutors who have been investigating in Germany on behalf of the EPPO since June 2021. His office in Hamburg’s Neustadt neighborhood has a view of the container ships in the city’s port. The file shelves on the wall are still almost empty. Like Kövesi, Schröder used to fight organized crime, but now his focus is on fraud and tax evasion.
When things go well, questions he sends out as part of his investigations receive responses from authorities across Europe within a few minutes. Then the German Federal Police and Customs immediately provide the personnel he needs, and the EPPO catches the perpetrators. Some of those he has already nabbed include middlemen with the Calabrian mafia organization ‘Ndrangheta.
But when things don’t go so well, criminals take the route through a country that doesn’t participate in EPPO, and Schröder hear’s nothing back. Or there’s squabbling over staffing. Or he has to deal with bureaucracy, advising on colors for file covers, for example. Schröder isn’t a man who swears. He says only: “There are moments when you swing toward despair.”
“Our job is not diplomacy, but to prosecute.”
To solve her people’s many problems, Kövesi must raise funds, soften boycotts and eliminate red tape. Unlike in Romania, she has no solid network to fall back on in the EU. Her colleague Ville Itälä, who heads the EU’s anti-fraud agency OLAF, came under criticism when he recently obstructed investigations into a former party colleague. Nonetheless, Itälä’s budget was initially higher than that of the EPPO, even though OLAF has fewer powers.
Kövesi isn’t a member of any political party. And diplomacy isn’t her strong point, as she herself admits. She thinks that independent investigators and EU diplomats are a bad match, anyway. “Our job is not diplomacy, but to prosecute,” she says. Kövesi describes her daily routine with the words: many meetings. If you ask her what the greater danger is – the media campaigns against her or the bureaucracy – she answers without hesitation: the bureaucracy.
“People want to see heroes,” says Elena Calistru. She believes that’s the only reason Kövesi has addressed the media. “But an institution has to function even when the heroes fail.” Calistru heads the anti-corruption organization Funky Citizens in Bucharest. She has known Kövesi for 10 years and has an appreciation for her work. But she, too, says that Kövesi failed to establish comprehensible rules for prioritizing cases during her time as Romania’s top prosecutor. She says it wasn’t always clear why the prosecutor took certain cases and rejected others. Kövesi grew larger than the justice system and became a figure that half the country obsessed about.
In her new position, Kövesi is now traveling with increasing frequency across Europe. She visited Slovenia when the country had trouble supplying the EPPO with investigators and then Malta, which is not taking up investigations. She has met with colleagues and ministers, but also with the family of Slovakian investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová, who were murdered after conducting reporting into corruption. Three weeks after the start of the war, she traveled to Ukraine to seal a cooperation deal with Ukraine’s prosecutor general.
Better to Go Underground
Kövesi also used to talk about herself in interviews, raving about the luxury of eating pizza in her pajamas or regretting that she didn’t have any children. But those days are over now. If you send her a WhatsApp message with a question, you are likely to politely receive an answer within a few minutes. If, on the other hand, you want to accompany the head of the EPPO on her travels, her staff first offers the opportunity to attend an unimportant appearance, only to have it later cancelled. At one point, Kövesi even sent an invitation to attend a celebration of the first anniversary of the prosecutor’s office, only to have her spokeswoman quickly intervene to say there are no plans for an event with journalists.
Old acquaintances say it is a strategy that Kövesi would be well advised to adhere to: It’s better to go underground than to allow herself to become a target again. But it could also prove difficult for Kövesi to maintain that kind of distance in the longer term. If you are always keeping yourself at bay, at some point you will no longer reach anyone.
At the end of April, the European Parliament invited Kövesi to provide a progress report on the first year of the EPPO’s work. She showed up punctually, to the very minute. She had swapped her jacket for a dress and wore a colorful scarf and a brooch in the Ukrainian national colors. She then cited figures from her agency’s first annual report: During the first seven months of 2021, the EPPO launched nearly 600 investigations and seized 147 million euros, three times more than the agency itself costs. The EU has increased Kövesi’s budget by 12 million euros for 2022, an important success for the EPPO head. Our work shows that Europe is not synonymous with weakness, says Kövesi.
“She is completely unflappable.”
Monika Hohlmeier on Laura Kövesi
Several members of parliament thanked her for her work. But Kövesi wants more: For prosecutors to become even more independent of national authorities, they need more power and money, and for that, the European Commission needs to make an amendment to the rules governing the EPPO. The EPPO requires approval of the Commission and the member states for those things to happen.
So far, though, that support is lacking among the member states. During the first year of its work, more than half of the EPPO’s investigations related to only four countries: Italy, Bulgaria, Romania and Germany. Monika Hohlmeier, chair of the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee, wants to support Kövesi’s request for a higher budget, but she also warns there’s a good chance the issue will remain “one of the last items” on the member states’ list of priorities. After the meeting, Hohlmeier steps into the hallway and says she appreciates Kövesi’s stoic manner. She says Kövesi doesn’t allow herself to be distracted by political meddling. “She is completely unflappable.”
Kövesi, though, has already disappeared to catch a flight to her next appointment. She’ll have to travel a lot to raise her agency’s profile.