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Thursday, September 16, 2021

EU’s new financial fraud squad struggles to catch the big fish as worst offenders opt out

EPPO, launched in June, is based in Luxembourg next to the European Court of Justice and boasts an annual budget just shy of €45m (£38.4m).

But critics say its remit is narrow and several member states, including those with some of the highest levels of corruption in the bloc, have refused to sign up. 

So will the new anti-fraud squad be able to secure high-profile convictions against rogue officials and politicians, or does the unelected office merely represent a power grab by the European Commission?

‘Fraud is now increasingly transnational’

Before the EPPO was set up, the European Union had the ability to investigate fraud involving EU funds but it was up to national prosecutors to take the offenders to court. If they refused, Brussels had no remaining powers.  

Historically, member states have been very reluctant to hand the EU powers to prosecute their own citizens.

“Many member states were still very unwilling to have a purely EU body trespassing on their patch because criminal justice is a sensitive issue,” says John Spencer, professor emeritus of law at Cambridge University.

The Commission tried to create a system in the late Nineties, where an EU official could prosecute fraud cases in national courts but – in typical fashion – member states refused. Instead, a somewhat muddled system was introduced where member of the bloc promised greater cooperation via the establishment of the European arrest warrant.

Fraud, however, persisted. “There’s been a gradual realisation that fraud was still a problem and existing methods hadn’t solved it,” says Spencer.

He says that some member states might have given in to the establishment of the EPPO because prosecuting the continuing fraud cases acted as “a bind” on their national prosecutors, taking up time and resources.

Sam Armstrong of the the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank, says: “Fraud is now increasingly transnational and it is vital that countries come together to tackle it fulsomely. Too often, victims of fraud are left without help when police recognise the perpetrators are overseas.

“Perhaps, though, this new body could begin by investigating why – for so many years – the EU has been unable to get its own accounts signed off.”

Hurdles ahead for Kovesi

EPPO’s launch also comes just as the bloc is set to dish out €800bn in pandemic recovery funds, potentially increasing the likelihood of officials attempting to swindle it.

Kovesi has said she expects the EPPO will “have a lot of troubles” in policing corruption as the funds are handed out.

“There’s nothing that can’t be managed or can’t be dealt with,” she told the Financial Times in May. “The only risk I can see is the lack of resources. But maybe we’ll solve this during the next year or years.”

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