The European Commission has proposed the establishment of a European Public Prosecutor's Office to fight fraud within the EU. Its exclusive task, according to a statement issued by the Commission, will be “to investigate and prosecute and, where relevant, bring to judgement – in the member states' courts - crimes affecting the EU budget. The European Public Prosecutor's Office will be an independent institution, subject to democratic oversight.”
The annual loss to fraud of EU funds is estimated at £431m.
Commission President José Manuel Barroso said: “As promised in my 2012 address on the State of the Union, the Commission has today proposed to set up a European Public Prosecutor's Office. This initiative confirms the Commission commitment to upholding the rule of law; it will decisively enhance the protection of taxpayers' money and the effective tackling of fraud involving EU funds. The Commission has also delivered on its commitments to reinforce and strengthening OLAF [the EU anti-fraud office] procedures applied to procedural guarantees, in line with the guarantees that the European Public Prosecutor Office will apply.”
The proposal means that the Commission is delivering on a promise to apply a “zero tolerance policy” towards fraud against the EU budget, said Vice-President Viviane Reding (pictured), who is also the EU's Justice Commissioner.
“Criminals who exploit legal loopholes to pocket taxpayers’ money should not go free because we do not have the right tools to bring them to justice,” she said. “Let's be clear: if we, the EU, don't protect our federal budget, nobody will do it for us. I call on member states and the European Parliament to rally behind this important project so that the European Public Prosecutor's Office can assume its functions as of 1 January 2015.”
Algirdas Šemeta, the EU’s anti-fraud Commissioner, added: “The European Public Prosecutor's Office will ensure that protecting the EU budget is given proper priority throughout Europe. It will bridge the gap between member states’ criminal systems, whose competences stop at national borders, and Union bodies that cannot conduct criminal investigations. Meanwhile, OLAF will continue to do important anti-fraud work in areas not covered by the new office. The ideas we have presented today to further improve its governance, combined with the recent reform, will make OLAF more efficient and more accountable in this work. As such, our success in fighting and deterring EU fraud will increase greatly.”
The rate of successful prosecutions concerning offences against the EU budget varies considerably from one member state to another, with an EU average of just 42.3%. Many cases are not prosecuted at all, allowing fraudsters to get away with exploiting legal loopholes and pocketing citizens’ money, according to the statement. Even when cases are prosecuted, there is a large disparity across Member States in terms of conviction rates for offences against the EU budget.
Under the EU Treaties, Denmark will not participate in the European Public Prosecutor's Office. The United Kingdom and Ireland will not participate either unless they voluntarily and explicitly decide to ‘opt in’. The Commission’s proposal needs the support of all EU member states and approval from the European Parliament before it can be adopted.
A European Criminal Bar Association (ECBA) spokesman said that it welcomes the initiative and will “contribute constructively” to the debate “in the near future” after careful consideration of the proposal. He said that the ECBA welcomes especially the “integration of certain procedural safeguards”, even those not “harmonised by EU legislation yet”, such as the rights to silence, to legal aid and to hear witnesses.