Tag Archives: Europol

Not on Viktor Orbán’s Christmas list: A European Public Prosecutor

The establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) has been on the table since at least 2013. In the last three years, despite intensive negotiations, progress has been slow because of the resistance of some of the member states, among them Hungary. As it stands, in order to create EPPO 25 member states have to support the proposal because the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark have opted out. According to reports, 20 member states support the plan while Poland, Hungary, Sweden, and the Netherlands oppose it. The reluctance to cede certain national rights to the European Union is understandable from the point of view of nation states, but we can be sure that Hungary’s unwillingness has other sources as well.

EPPO will have the authority “to investigate and prosecute EU-fraud and other crimes affecting the Union’s financial interests.” Currently, only national authorities can investigate and prosecute EU-fraud. The existing EU bodies, such as OLAF, Eurojust, and Europol, don’t have jurisdiction here. OLAF can investigate, but the prosecution must be carried out by the authorities of the member states. As we know, in the case of Hungary OLAF finds plenty to investigate, but the Hungarian authorities never find anything wrong. Europol has no executive powers, and its officials are not entitled to conduct investigations in the member states or to arrest suspects. Eurojust, an organization I have not mentioned before, is merely a coordinating body which is supposed to improve the handling of serious cross-border crimes by “stimulating” investigative and prosecutorial coordination among agencies of the member states. This is another body that has no power over the justice system in the member states. Eurojust could “stimulate” Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office till doomsday and it would never investigate crimes committed by Fidesz officials.

From the description of EPPO’s structure on the website of the European Union I have some difficulty envisaging how this independent prosecutorial body will function. Under a European prosecutor, investigations will be carried out by European delegated prosecutors located in each member state. These delegated prosecutors will be an integral part of the EPPO, but they will also function as national prosecutors. I must say that I have my doubts about this setup, which Viktor Orbán’s regime could easily manipulate. But it will probably never come to pass because, among the Central European EU members, Hungary and Poland have no intention of going along with the plan which, according to Věra Jourová, commissioner in charge of justice, consumers and gender equality, should be voted on within three months.

The head of OLAF, Giovanni Kessler, naturally supports the plan because the number of cases his organization has to investigate increases every year. In 2015 OLAF opened 219 investigations and concluded 304. Hungary alone had 17 possible fraud cases, the third highest after Bulgaria and Romania. But OLAF can only make recommendations to the member states, which at least in Hungary’s case are not pursued. Interestingly, several chief prosecutors in member states support the idea of the setting up a European Prosecutor’s Office, among them the prosecutors of Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, France, and Romania. As we know, in Romania corruption is just as bad if not worse than in Hungary, yet there is a willingness to allow an independent body to investigate cases of fraud and corruption.

Last July the Hungarian media reported that the negotiations were in an advanced stage since Jourová called together the ministers of justice for an informal talk in Bratislava. At that point HVG reported that “Hungary supports the goals of the organization but is afraid that the sovereignty of the Hungarian prosecution may be undermined.” The explanation Justice Minister László Trócsányi gave for Hungary’s hesitation concerning EPPO was that in the Hungarian judicial system the chief prosecutor is appointed by the parliament and therefore the sovereignty issue might be a constitutional problem. By December, after Jourová’s visit to Budapest, this hesitation became a flat refusal. In addition to the argument about the parliamentary appointment of the chief prosecutor, a new argument surfaced in parliament, which had its source in Trócsányi’s proposed additions to the Fidesz constitution about Hungary’s “national identity and basic constitutional arrangements.”

Practically on the same day that the parliamentary committee said no to the proposal “in its present form,” Věra Jourová told Handelsblatt Global that “the European Commission could impose financial penalties on Poland and Hungary if they block the creation of a European public prosecutor.” Poland and Hungary receive more aid from the European Union than they pay into the budget, and therefore their refusal is unacceptable. She disclosed that on the basis of the known cases, €638 million of structural funds were misappropriated in 2015. The actual figure is most likely much higher. This must be stopped, she added.

Věra Jourová, commissioner in charge of justice. Despite her pleasant smile she’s apparently tough.

On December 8 EU justice ministers gathered again in Brussels to discuss the creation of EPPO, but while the majority of them support the plan, a few member states refuse to budge. To quote euractiv.com, “with no end in sight to this blockage, France’s Minister of Justice Jean-Jacques Urvoas and his German counterpart Heiko Maas decided to propose an enhanced cooperation deal for those countries that are in favor of this ‘super prosecutor.’” Enhanced cooperation is a mechanism that allows EU countries to bypass the requirement of unanimity. A group of at least nine member states may request a draft regulation. If this draft fails, the states concerned are free to establish enhanced cooperation among themselves. I fail to see how that would be disadvantageous to rogue states like Poland or Hungary. Orbán would gladly acknowledge the fact that EPPO has no jurisdiction over Hungary, and he and his friends could continue to steal about a third of the structural funds EU provides. A perfect arrangement.

Now let’s turn to how the opposition parties see the issue. As far as Jobbik is concerned, the establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office is the first step to the dreaded United States of Europe. In fact, Jobbik accuses Fidesz and the Orbán government of not fighting hard enough in Brussels against this proposal. Jobbik must consider the issue very important because they published a statement in English in which Gábor Staudt, a Jobbik MP, explains the party’s position. He recalls the Fidesz members of the European Parliament not having the guts to vote against the proposal; they only abstained. Jobbik’s opposition is based strictly on its nationalistic defense of Hungarian sovereignty whereas Fidesz worries primarily about the legal consequences of an independent European prosecutor’s office investigating crimes of government officials.

The democratic Hungarian opposition parties are all enthusiastic supporters of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office. DK was actually campaigning with the idea ahead of the 2014 European parliamentary election. Benedek Jávor, a member of the European parliament delegated by PM (nowadays Párbeszéd), joined DK’s demand soon after. István Ujhelyi (MSZP), also a member of the European parliament, is of the same mind. He wrote a lengthy piece, published on the party’s website, about the necessity of such a body in the absence of a functioning Hungarian prosecutor’s office. Ujhelyi is sure that if EPPO is set up “the Fidesz hussars will be behind bars in crowded rows, including those corrupt officials who assist them.” He criticizes Fidesz members of the European Parliament for abandoning the position of the European People’s Party to which they belong. They “almost alone abstained” at the time the matter was discussed in Strasbourg.

Ujhelyi somewhat optimistically points out that if Hungary remains outside the group of countries that are ready to be under the jurisdiction of the European Public Prosecutor, the distinction between honest and dishonest countries will be evident. In case Fidesz refuses to support the decision, “it will be an admission that it is a party of thieves.” I’m afraid Viktor Orbán and his government simply don’t care what others think of them. At the moment Viktor Orbán is in Poland on a two-day visit. I understand that he and Jarosław Kaczyński had a leisurely three-hour dinner. I’m sure that the threat of a European Public Prosecutor to the sovereignty of Poland and Hungary was thoroughly discussed.

December 11, 2016

European Police College in Budapest? Not likely at the moment

While Fidesz was trying to discredit its political opponents in a tiny electoral district of a small town in Hungary, another struggle was taking place in Strasbourg over Hungary’s right to be the new site of the European Police College or CEPOL. Most likely few people have ever heard of the institution, which is currently situated in Bramshill in the United Kingdom. The UK a few months ago decided not to continue to host the college, and thus the European Commission and the Union’s other institutions had to come up with another location in one of the member countries. While they were at it, the Commission made the recommendation that CEPOL and Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency with its headquarters in The Hague, should be merged. Europol has a big, modern building, and combining the two institutions would be more cost effective. It seems that many people in the European Parliament and elsewhere in other European institutions are not too keen on the idea of the merger, believing that the college should be a professional training ground and fearing that it might be politicized by this fusion.

European Police College, Bramshill, United Kingdom

European Police College, Bramshill, United Kingdom

And now enters Lithuania, whose prime minister and right-wing political leadership have a soft spot for Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. In December 2012, for example, when the Hungarian government was under considerable pressure from Brussels because of its less than democratic tendencies, the Lithuanian parliament issued a proclamation “defending” Hungary. The Hungarians were naturally most grateful and thanked the Lithuanian people and their politicians for their brave act.

What does Lithuania have to do with the fate of CEPOL? A lot. Lithuania currently holds the presidency of the European Union. You may recall that when Hungary had the post for six months in 2011 the ministerial councils of the member states held their regular meetings in Gödöllő in the former summer palace of the Hungarian royal couple. It is Vilnius that now chairs these meetings, and on October 7 when the council of the ministers of the interior met they agreed to the Lithuanian proposal that the new headquarters of CEPOL should be in Budapest.

It turned out that seven countries had submitted proposals, but Hungary was the only country from the relative newcomers. And there is an attempt in the European Union to distribute European institutions in such a manner that eventually there would be no great differences between the long-time members and the newcomers.

For a while the Hungarian government felt pretty certain that the deal was sealed. CEPOL will be in Hungary from 2014 on. But then came all sorts of unforeseen complications, the least of which, as it turned out, was Rui Tavares’s objection to the location as long as the Hungarian government leaves the European Parliament’s report on the country’s democratic inefficiencies unanswered. In Hungary an awful lot of time and energy was wasted on Tavares’s objection. On October 14, Máté Kocsis in parliament called attention to the “communist” Comrade Tavares’s machinations in the hope of preventing CEPOL headquarters from being located in Budapest. And while he was at it, he accused the Hungarian socialist members of the European parliament of treasonous behavior because he “suspected” that they were the real instigators. Of course, that was followed by some tit for tat from MSZP, which decided to sue Kocsis.

All that was just a lot of useless noise because two days later MTI reported that “nobody stood by Tavares” at the hearings of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), one of the standing committees of the European Parliament. The report also added that even Kinga Göncz, one of the MSZP members of parliament, argued for the Budapest location. Magyar Nemzet was graphic. Their article, based on the MTI report, announced that “Tavares’s spectacular failure was something else!” But the problem with all this boasting about the great Hungarian victory at the hearing is that the issue didn’t hinge on Tavares’s objections. The situation is much more serious than that.

If one has the patience to listen to the forty-minute video of the hearing, it becomes clear that the procedure Lithuania adopted is most likely flawed. Moreover, despite what Kinga Gál (Fidesz) claimed at the hearing, the European Parliament has veto power over the decision. So does the European Commission. And it is clear that both the representatives of the Commission and the parliamentary rapporteur of the European Parliament are against moving CEPOL to Budapest.

The Commission still prefers the merger of CEPOL and Europol in The Hague, and the parliamentary rapporteur, the Spanish Agustin Diaz de Mera Garcia Consuegra, a member of the European People’s Party, expressed his opinion that the procedure adopted by Lithuania is unconstitutional and therefore most likely void. The European Parliament was not consulted as it should have been. Lithuania misread the constitution or misconstrued it  The whole affair is “pathetic,” he announced.

Another EPP member, the French Veronique Mathieu Houillon, who will be the rapporteur of the question, suggested taking a look at all seven applications which up till now the European parliamentary members didn’t have an opportunity to review. The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for November 26 when perhaps a decision will be made.

So, that is the true story of the hearing of LIBE on Thursday. No great victory, at best a setback. Moreover, it is a distinct possibility that Budapest, after all, will not get CEPOL because neither the European Commission nor the representatives of the European Parliament are keen on the Budapest location. Also, keep in mind that both people who suggested reviewing the whole procedure are members of the conservative European People’s Party. Hungary will be the site of CEPOL only if both the Commission and the Parliament endorse its bid. From the tone of the discussion I wouldn’t be too optimistic if I were Viktor Orbán.

I also wonder how much damage Lithuania did to its own reputation and to the Hungarian cause in bypassing EU rules to support its ideological friend, Orbán’s Hungary. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Hungary asked Lithuania’s help in mending its relations with Armenia. It seems that the Lithuanians were ready to assist, but their efforts ended in a large embarrassment for both Lithuania and Hungary. There may also have been close cooperation between the two countries in the case of CEPOL’s headquarters. Given the tone of the hearings, such cooperation (if it existed) wasn’t a good idea.