‘The law is equal for everyone’: Laura Codruța Kövesi, Europe’s first public prosecutor

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Laura Codruța Kövesi made her name as the head of Romania’s respected anti-corruption agency, the DNA. She went after government ministers and mayors, fast becoming a favourite of the European parliament and anti-corruption campaigners.

Kövesi was popular with many governments – but not her own, who vowed to do everything to block her successful campaign to become Europe’s first public prosecutor.

Eighteen months later, that Romanian government has fallen and Kövesi is preparing to launch the European public prosecutor’s office (EPPO), the first EU body to handle criminal investigations.

The new office will result in more investigations and more prosecutions, as well as a stronger defence of the rule of law in the EU, Kövesi said in an interview. “Our benchmark for success will be the citizens’ trust in our institution,” said the popular lawyer, who is stopped in the street for photos and handshakes in her home country.

The EPPO, an idea 25 years in the making, allows the EU to bring cases of suspected fraud involving European funds and cross-border VAT fiddles to national criminal courts. VAT fiddles alone are estimated to cost national treasuries €50bn (£44bn) a year. Kövesi will run the organisation from Luxembourg, assisted by a prosecutor from each participating country, although investigations will be run by dedicated prosecutors in member states.

EU officials have long worried that national governments do not prioritise cross-border crimes or attempts to steal from the EU budget, where cases are often complex, and require language skills and cooperation with other police forces. The EU anti-fraud office, Olaf, investigates administrative violations, but can only refer cases to national police. Only half of those cases lead to an indictment.

Kövesi, who expects EPPO to receive more than 3,000 cases, has been battling to increase the agency’s budget, proposed at €37.7m. EU officials argue the funds, already increased once, are sufficient for the launch year and hope the organisation will be ready to start – as planned – later in 2020.

Her biggest problem may be the decision of five EU member states – Denmark, Ireland, Hungary, Poland and Sweden – not to join. In an attempt to persuade Hungary, where the prime minister’s friends and family have won lucrative EU-funded contracts, EU officials attempted to link disbursement of EU funds to the rule of law. Hungary still refused.

Expectations of Kövesi are high. The families of the murdered investigative journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak wrote to the EU council of ministers to argue for her appointment, describing her as “the bravest and most distinguished candidate for the job”. Kövesi, they said, was in the same mould as Caruana Galizia and Kuciak, who targeted corruption in high places.

Reflecting on those expectations, Kövesi said: “ I am the same person as I was in my previous position, so I will do my best … and I will not be alone.”

Kövesi was 15 when communism was overthrown in 1989. She was playing basketball for her country in the junior European championships in August 1989 in Timisoara, the city that became the birthplace of the Romanian revolution a few months later. At least 100 protesters were killed in a brutal crackdown in the city, including many young people. She later said: “How many of those people who were at our games and supported us were injured or dead in the revolution? They fought for democracy and some of them did not survive.”

She entered law school in 1991, soon after the compulsory Marxist-Leninist curriculum had been scrapped and Romania’s laws rewritten. Kövesi, whose father was a prosecutor, chose to specialise in criminal law. It was not easy. “The first thing that I heard, when I said I wanted to become a prosecutor was that the prosecutor’s office was not for women,” she said. “I had to work harder than men just to prove that a woman’s prosecutor office can be as good as a man.”

By 33, she was Romania’s youngest ever general prosecutor. In 2013, she became head of the DNA, where her fearless record made her a hero for pro-democracy campaigners. In one poll, 60% said they trusted the DNA, while only 11% trusted the parliament. But her work made her a target for spying, cyber-espionage and attacks in the media. “It was not easy, especially for my family, but when you choose to work as a prosecutor you have to take all the risks that come with this position,” she said.

After more than five years at the DNA, where she oversaw the prosecution of a former prime minister, she was dismissed on the orders of the justice minister in July 2018. It was a year of mass street protests and warnings that the government was dismantling the democratic checks and balances that had made it possible to join the EU.

Kövesi, who prefers not to comment on national politics, said the DNA still had courageous prosecutors, but hopes the new government will change a 2018 law, which was widely criticised for weakening judicial independence and the fight against corruption.

After Romania joined the EU in 2007, some EU governments complained the corruption-riddled country was let in too soon. Kövesi has a different perspective, arguing that the fight against corruption changed fundamentally when Romania joined.

Now she will bring the same focus on combatting corruption to 22 countries. Asked if she would hesitate to prosecute an EU leader suspected of misuse of EU funds, she replied: “Of course we will act … EPPO will be an independent prosecutor’s office and we will have to prove that the law is equal for everyone.”