Press play to listen to this article
LUXEMBOURG — Slovenia is undermining the EU’s new fraud-busting office before it’s even launched.
On Thursday, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša refused to acknowledge his country’s two candidates for the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) — an organization designed to uncover and prosecute misuse of EU funds.
For weeks, Janša dragged his feet formalizing the candidates’ appointment — before just canceling the process altogether this week. Without local prosecutors in Slovenia, the EPPO will struggle to carry out investigations and bring charges in the country.
It’s a “very bad signal,” Laura Codruța Kövesi, the EPPO’s chief, told POLITICO in an interview at the office’s headquarters in Luxembourg. “A lack of sincere cooperation.”
When it comes to Slovenia, Kövesi added, “it’s obvious that something is not credible.”
The move is in keeping with other actions taken by Janša, a right-wing populist, who has been criticized for undermining press freedom. His government takes over the Council of the EU’s rotating presidency in July, giving it six months of heightened power in a critical EU institution.
Now, Slovenia is also testing the EU’s ability to crack down on fraud and corruption via the EPPO, just as it prepares to launch on June 1.
The EPPO, which counts 22 EU countries as members, is designed to prosecute EU budget fraud. One of the new body’s strengths, according to Kövesi, is its ability to tackle cross-border crimes that until now were difficult to prosecute — with a new system allowing analysts in Luxembourg to “connect the dots,” and prosecutors across the continent able to easily share information.
The office will rely on a network of so-called European delegated prosecutors in each country. But two countries — Slovenia and Finland — have yet to fill these posts. More broadly, five countries have yet to sign up to the office altogether — Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, Poland and Sweden.
While two Slovenian candidates were selected through a technocratic process, the government for months stalled on taking the final step — acknowledging the outcome — by repeatedly refusing to put the matter on the agenda.
On Thursday, the government called for new candidates to be proposed. Slovenian Justice Minister Lilijana Kozlovič immediately resigned in protest.
Kövesi — a former chief prosecutor at Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate — cautioned that while the EPPO can start its work without some jobs filled, Slovenia will take a “very huge risk” if it chooses not to appoint candidates.
“This will influence the activity of EPPO, the efficiency of EPPO,” she said. “How we can protect better the European money without having the prosecutors in Slovenia?”
While the new office’s rules allow for delegated prosecutors in some cases to help out in other countries, Kövesi said that in practice it would be “impossible to manage all the cases in Slovenia” without prosecutors from the country who know local procedures and speak the language.
Andrés Ritter, an EPPO deputy chief prosecutor, agreed. “It would weaken us,” he told reporters Friday, noting the institution might not be able to start at full force. Still, he argued the EPPO was “resilient” to such political pressure, pointing to its EU-wide backing and other contacts in Slovenia.
Janša, meanwhile, has accused Kövesi — a lifelong prosecutor — of playing politics.
“What about Sweden, Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Denmark… @EUProsecutor? They don’t participate in #EPPO at all,” he tweeted late Thursday.
“It’s our choice, so stop playing political games inspired by @RenewEurope @strankaSD,” the prime minister wrote, referring to the liberal group in the European Parliament and Slovenia’s opposition Social Democrats.
Legal experts aren’t buying Janša’s argument.
“If you start a procedure, you need to finish it,” said Samo Bardutzky, head of the department of constitutional law at the University of Ljubljana.
Speaking of the government’s move to discard the existing candidates, Bardutzky said, “I don’t think it had grounds to annul the procedure.”
Even Slovenia’s own judicial structure was critical of the move. In addition to the justice minister’s resignation, the country’s top prosecutor, Drago Šketa, told POLITICO that the government’s “legal competence” was “to take note” of the candidates. Not doing so “violated one of the most important constitutional principles.”
But the Slovenian government insists it is simply following the law.
In a statement, the government said the original call for candidates did not meet legal requirements, so it had “instructed the Ministry of Justice to immediately publish a new call for the submission of candidatures for the nomination of two European delegated prosecutors.”
Finland, the other country yet to nominate delegated prosecutors, is engaged in a different dispute with the EPPO.
Helsinki has yet to resolve an issue regarding how issues, such as pensions, would work for the prosecutors — as well as a thorny debate over how to interpret EPPO rules regarding its prosecutors taking second jobs back home.
“It’s very important to have only full-time prosecutors,” Kövesi said, adding that the situation in Slovenia is “very clear proof that we need to have only independent prosecutors that no one could interfere in their activity.”
A spokesperson for Finland’s EU delegation said that in their reading of the regulation, each country’s EPPO prosecutors may also work as national prosecutors.
The spokesperson argued that because of the EPPO’s mandate, “a very limited number of criminal cases” will fall to these prosecutors, so they should be allowed to fill the rest of their days with other duties.
Yet the Finnish representative also stressed “it is a high priority also for Finland that the EPPO will start its operations as soon as possible.”
Similarly, Kövesi said the two countries presented different issues.
There is “a difference between Slovenia and Finland,” the top prosecutor said.
“With Finland, she noted, “we didn’t reach an agreement — yet.”
In a statement to POLITICO, EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders lamented both situations, arguing “sufficient time was provided” to settle any issues.
“I have been personally involved with a large outreach to responsible ministers,” he added.
And, he insisted, “This situation will not prevent the EPPO from starting its activities.”
Additional reporting by Hans von der Burchard.