Laura Codruța Kövesi, European Chief Prosecutor, is the head of the newly established Luxembourg-based European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), which started operations on 1 June 2021. Previously, the Romanian-born was the head of the National Anticorruption Directorate in Romania. The EPPO is the first supranational public prosecutor’s office in the world with the capacity to conduct cross-border investigations. It is an independent body set up to prosecute and bring to justice offences affecting the financial interests of the European Union, such as certain forms of subsidy fraud, corruption and cross-border VAT fraud. 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 and her fight against corruption, bribery and money laundering in the EU member states.
Ms. Kövesi, you are the head of the newly established European Public Prosecutors Office (EPPO). Our first question is: 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 offences. 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 4 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.
Ms. Kövesi, our seventh question is always a personal one: 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.
Ms. Kövesi, thank you very much for the interview!
Founder of the Faces of Democracy initiative | Faces of Peace
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About the Faces of Democracy and Faces of Peace initiatives:
With almost 100 prominent figures from politics, business, the media and society – including the former President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Norway Erna Solberg, the President of the Republic of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid, the German Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas and OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger – the Faces of Democracy initiative is now in its fourth year of existence. The first “faces” of the 2019 founded Faces of Peace initiative are SIPRI Director Dan Smith, the Chairman of the Atlantic Brücke e.V. Sigmar Gabriel, the OSCE CiO 2019 and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic Miroslav Lajčák and the Chief of Staff of the 69th Submarine Brigade of the Northern Fleet Vasili A. Arkhipov.
The Faces of Democracy and Peace in alphabetical order:
Jean Asselborn, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)
Annalena Baerbock, Chairwoman of the Green Party of Germany
Bishop Dr. Georg Bätzing, Chairman of the German Bishops‘ Conference
Dr. Katarina Barley, Lead candidate for Germany’s Social Democrats
Gabriela Cuevas Barron, President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU)
Hubert Barth, Country Managing Partner EY Germany
Dominik Bartsch, Representative of UNHCR in Germany
Holger Beeck, Chief Executive Officer McDonald’s Germany
Jörg Biallas, Editor-in-chief of „Das Parlament“
Gérard Biard, Editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo
Stef Blok, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands
Wolfgang Bosbach, CDU expert on internal security
Prof. Dr. Peter Brandt, German historian and the first son of former chancellor Willy Brandt
Michael Bröcker, Editor-in-Chief of „Media Pioneer“
Rolf Buch, Chief Executive Officer of Vonovia SE
Tom Buhrow, Chairman of the ARD network
Giovanni Buttarelli, European Data Protection Supervisor
Stephan-Andreas Casdorff, Publisher of the leading Berlin newspaper “Der Tagesspiegel”
Piotr Cywinski, Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial
Shirin David, YouTube star and “Germany’s Got Talent” jury member
Detlef Dzembritzki, Chairman of the United Nations Association of Germany (UNA)
Moritz Döbler, Editor-in-Chief of „Rheinische Post“
Prof. Dr. Douglas Elmendorf, Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School
Saskia Esken, Leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD)
Georg Fahrenschon, President of the German Savings Banks Association (DSGV)
Peter Frank, Federal Public Prosecutor General at the Federal Court of Justice
Leonard Freier, Former RTL Bachelor
Fabrice Fries, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of AFP
Dr. Clemens Fuest, President of the ifo Institute
Yvonne Gebauer, Minister of School and Education in North Rhine Westphalia
Sigmar Gabriel, Chairman of the Atlantic Brücke e.V.
Yvonne Gebauer, Minister of School and Education in North Rhine Westphalia
Thomas Geisel, Mayor of Düsseldorf – the state capital of North Rhine-Westphalia
Tom Gerhard, Actor and comedian
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, President of the Republic of Croatia
Alice Greenwald, President and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum
Thomas Greminger, OSCE Secretary General
Maria Großbauer, Organizer of the Vienna Opera Ball
Christiane Grün, Managing Director 3M DACH countries
Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Hahn, Henkel-Endowed Chair of Sustainability Management
Dr. John Hamre, President and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies
John Harris, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of POLITICO
Dr. Reiner Haseloff, Prime Minister of Saxony-Anhalt
Prof. Dr. Gerald Haug, President of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
LTG Ben Hodges, Retired Commander of the U.S. Army in Europe
Reiner Hoffmann, President of the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB)
Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland
Dr. Gunnar Jeremias, Head of the Interdisciplinary Research Group for the Analysis of Biological Risks
Hans-Ulrich Jörges, Editor-in-chief of „Stern“
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission
Bruno Kahl, President of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND)
Kersti Kaljulaid, President of the Republic of Estonia
Anja Karliczek, German Federal Minister of Education and Research
Daniela Katzenberger, Soap opera star
Fritz Keller, President of the German Football Association (DFB)
Julia Klöckner, Federal Minster of Food and Agriculture
Laura Codruța Kövesi, European Chief Prosecutor
Dr. Hubertus Kolster, Managing Partner of CMS Germany
Ingo Kramer, President of the Confederation of German Employers‘ Associations (BDA)
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU)
Prof. Dr. Heyo Kroemer, Chief Executive Officer of the Charité
Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman, Survivor of the Kosovo War and Activist
Miroslav Lajčák, OSCE CiO 2019 and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic
Prof. Dr. Norbert Lammert, Chairman of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and Former President of the German Bundestag
Martina Larkin, Head of Europe and Member of the Executive Committee of the World Economic Forum Davos
Armin Laschet, Prime Minister of North-Rhine-Westphalia
Prof. Dr. Karl Lauterbach, German parliamentarian and health expert
Dr. Jürgen Linden, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Charlemagne Prize
Christian Lindner, Leader of the Free Democratic Party in Germany (FDP)
Dr. Christian Lutz, Chief Executive Officer of Deutsche Bahn AG
Heiko Maas, Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs
Dr. David Magerman, Managing Partner at Differential Ventures
Sandra Maischberger, Television journalist and talk show host
Aiman Mazyek, Secretary-General of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany
Prof. Dr. Rudolf Mellinghoff, President of the Federal Supreme Finance Court
Prof. Dr. Lamia Messari-Becker, Professor of building technology and building physics
Ralf Martin Meyer, Police President of Hamburg
Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney
Benigna Munsi, Nuremberg Christkind 2019/2020
Dr. Irfan Ortac, Secretary-General of the Central Council of Yazidis in Germany
Dr. Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, Acting President of the Republic of Kosovo
Boris Palmer, Lord Mayor of Tübingen
Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Papier, Former President of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany
Prof. Dr. Volker Perthes, Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs
Ulf Poschardt, Editor-in-Chief WELT
Dr. Heribert Prantl, Member of the Chief Editorial Team of „Süddeutsche Zeitung“
Ernst Primosch, CEO of Edelman Germany
Q2/Grade 12 – Albert Einstein High School Kaarst
Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, Co-President of the Club of Rome
Gitanjali Rao, TIME’s 2020 Kid of the Year
Carla Reemtsma, Co-Organizer of Fridays for Future in Germany
Alfred Theodor Ritter, Owner and Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Alfred Ritter GmbH & Co. KG
Dr. Daniel Röder, Founder of Pulse of Europe initiative
Annika Savill, Executive Head of the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF)
Prof. Dr. Conrad Schetter, Director for Research at Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC)
Thomas Schnalke, CEO Düsseldorf Airport (DUS)
Olaf Schubert, Comedian and cabaret artist
Martin Schulz, German Social Democratic Party chancellor candidate 2017
Dr. Josef Schuster, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany
Dan Smith, Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Norway
Prof. Dr. Anja Steinbeck, President of Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf
Gabor Steingart, Founder and Publisher of the Media Pioneer Publishing GmbH
Dr. Johannes Teyssen, Chairman of the Board of Management of E.ON SE
Pia Tillmann, Actor and Influencer
Dr. Andreas Voßkuhle, President of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany
Professor Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative
Dagmar Wöhrl, Investor at „The Cave of the Lions“
Joshua Wong, the Face of Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement
Brigitte Zypries, Former Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy