Krzysztof BledowskiCouncil Director and Senior Economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation
Yes, it can, but the process is ongoing. Combating corruption is part of the EU’s acquis, and European electorates overwhelmingly support it.
Big disparities in the pervasiveness of corruption across the EU persist. In countries with a communist past (new member states that joined in 2004 and 2007), the rot reaches deeper than in the North and West. Lack of judicial independence combined with political control of the economy under communism are legacies that weigh on these countries thirty years later.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) and other bodies help to adjudicate where national law enforcement remains on shaky ground. The EU could help by strengthening their hand and speeding up the appellate process. Again, voters will support greater involvement of European institutions where national enforcement is weak.
It is comforting to note that the harassment of whistleblowers and investigative journalists is met with strong public pushback. The electorate understands the cost of corruption with its drain on economic efficiency, distribution of income, and social justice. In Europe, indulging corruption backfires in the ballot box—something that should give heart to societies under strongly authoritarian regimes.
If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then the EU has its priorities right and ought to stick to its script.
Shada IslamDirector of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends Of Europe
Better late than never. The choice of Kövesi as the EU’s first public prosecutor is a welcome sign that the bloc is finally getting serious about tackling Europe’s dirty secret: corruption.
Kövesi won’t have it easy, however. National governments across the EU have skillfully brushed many of their corruption scandals out of public sight by targeting journalists, judges, and anti-corruption advocates. EU institutions have brought out worthy reports underlining the cost of corruption but been unable to do more.
Far-right populists have latched on to the issue with their attacks on “corrupt elites”, contributing to the erosion of public confidence in governments and politicians. Never mind that these very populists are entangled in their own nasty corruption scandals, which usually include playing fast and loose with public funds.
Ironically, despite their own weak track record on the issue, Europeans are great at spreading the anti-corruption gospel to the world—including countries in the Western Balkans and in Africa. But their moral standing is eroded by their failure to practice what they preach.
This makes it more important than ever that members of the new European Commission have no corruption-linked skeletons in the cupboard. The European Parliament will therefore have to be very thorough when it quizzes the new EU team in the coming weeks.
Nicholas KaridesDirector of Ampersand Public Affairs
To paraphrase European Commission president-designate Ursula von der Leyen, corruption has also become part of the “European Way of Life”.
Nonetheless, the European Council’s appointment of a doer like Kövesi to head the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) is a bold move, which one hopes will not rest simply on the strong symbolism it carries or on the mythology surrounding Kövesi’s achievements.
The challenges are varied and complex at a time when corruption has found strong allies in demagogy and disinformation. In the current murky and non-pluralistic scene where political and corporate power has gotten a hold on the media and public trust is running low, institutions that are serious about tackling corruption will need all the support they can get.
Given that anti-corruption policies may prove difficult to agree on among member states, perhaps the EU can also pursue other options. An easy one would be to offer strong and practical support to public service-led journalism and non-profit media organizations that are dedicated to investigative reporting seeking to expose abuses of power at the expense of the people.
Jacek KucharczykPresident of the Institute of Public Affairs
The appointment of the EU’s first public prosecutor is an important development as it adds to the EU’s institutional toolbox in the fight against corruption. However, it remains to be seen if the new office will make a real difference.
Its institutional design is a compromise between conflicting interests, and the fact that some key member states, such as Poland, have failed to subscribe to it is likely to limit its impact. My biggest worry is that the creation of the EPPO will be used by EU decisionmakers as an excuse not to pursue other, more politically controversial actions to ensure the integrity of public institutions on both the European and national level.
Since 2015, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland has not only severely limited the independence of the Polish judiciary but also politicized key anti-corruption institutions, such as the National Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Central Anti-Corruption Office. Under the PiS government, these institutions have become tools to harass the opposition and critical media, while turning a blind eye to a string of high-level corruption and conflict-of-interest cases.
Defending the rule of law in backsliding member states must remain the EU’s top priority.
Denis MacShaneSenior Adviser at Avisa Partners
It is not a single functionary that will “de-corrupt” Europe but an embrace of the fullest transparency.
The European Parliament could make a start by publishing the details of how every euro of taxpayers’ money given to members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to spend on staff, travel, and other allowances is spent—full details of payments to every MEP’s assistant, salary, and expenses and to outside firms or contractors paid to provide services of any sort to MEPs.
The same could be applied to any firm or individual awarded a contract or given a subsidy either directly by the EU or paid from EU transfers to national budgets.
It should be possible with one click on an MEP’s name or on the name of a firm receiving EU funds in member states to obtain a completely transparent list of all moneys received and spent.
Any payment by a firm or individual to any politician in Europe should be a matter of public record, as there is little point in cleaning up the European Parliament if EU money is administered by national politicians who are taking money from private companies for party activities or personal gains.
Romania is as corrupt today as ever, and the publicity hype around one individual is a diversion from the need for European democracy to become fully transparent and to erect clear, visible barriers between political power and money power.
Alina Mungiu-PippidiProfessor of Democracy Studies at the Hertie School
The EU will remain unable to make convincing moves against corruption as long as it does not agree to a single legal definition of corruption across the EU institutions and the twenty-eight member states as well as a uniform set of criminal rules and penalties. And ideally of standards too.
Right now, we live in an EU where a European Commission ethics committee wrote to EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly in 2016 that it doesn’t know what integrity is (in response to the Ombudsman’s challenge of how the committee handled former commission president José Manuel Barroso’s taking a Goldman Sachs job soon after leaving office). The ECJ has not defined integrity .
If you add to this that Sylvie Goulard of the European Parliament’s Renew Europe group can be proposed as European commissioner after paying back an amount similar to that for which Liviu Dragnea, former leader of Romania's Social Democratic Party, went to jail for three and a half years, and that Kövesi crushed some lowlife Romanian politicians in her previous job, while Airbus, Microsoft, and Veolia can walk away after major stunts, one is left to wonder.
András RáczSenior Research Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations
The likely election of Romania’s former chief anti-corruption prosecutor—the internationally highly respected Kövesi—to lead the EPPO is an important sign of the commitment that has been building up among core EU member states to fight corruption, money laundering, and VAT fraud within the union.
What makes the probable election of Kövesi very particular is that this EU commitment was strong enough to counter the Romanian government’s strong lobbying against her nomination. It is indeed very rare in the EU that a top official gets appointed against the explicit will of his or her home country. Nevertheless, with Kövesi this is exactly what is going to be the case once the final voting is over.
Of course, the devil is in the details. A lot will depend on the actual resources and staffing of the EPPO, and also on whether less enthusiastic member states would be able to first hinder the setup and thereafter the functioning of the institution. Another key challenge will be how to handle corruption within the EU member states that have not joined the EPPO.
However, all in all, what makes the nomination of Kövesi to European chief prosecutor important is not only her impressive track record in fighting corruption in Romania: equally relevant is the fact that her likely appointment symbolizes the strong political will of key EU member states to fight corruption.
And if there is a will, there is usually a way.
Zsuzsanna SzelényiERSTE Stiftung Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences
The fish stinks from the head. Corruption is the most poisonous threat to contemporary democracy. It is always linked to the abuse of power.
Through corruption, some governments create extraordinary opportunities for themselves to gather disproportionate financial resources—misconduct over EU funds serves these undemocratic interests. Moreover, corruption is very nuanced these days, making it difficult to detect and fight.
Corruption exists in every European country on different levels. The fact that large democratic countries and prestigious European companies are also involved is sometimes used as an argument by some nationalist governments to justify systemic wrongdoings.
The need for joint, European anti-corruption action is inevitable. And that requires a strong political will at the top level of decisionmakers. As some of them are operational in managing corruption, this will not be easy. Strengthening public anti-corruption pressure is crucial.
The newly elected European public prosecutor’s main task will be to build up the necessary political coalition behind the anti-corruption commitment and encourage legislation at the European level. That would provide the necessary transparency on the spending of public money.
As the European institutions are traditionally good at cooperating with civic networks, there is a hope that such a multi-layered anti-corruption coalition can be realized in the future.
Radosveta VassilevaLawyer and social advocate against corruption and human rights abuses
The bitterest lesson one can learn from Bulgaria, which is the most corrupt EU member according to reputable indices, is that corruption on a national level deepens when EU institutions are complicit with an autocratic government.
Bulgaria and Romania are the only two EU members subjected to the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), under which the European Commission has been monitoring their progress in the areas of rule of law and corruption since their accession to the EU in 2007.
In Bulgaria, the CVM progressively became an exercise in courtesy—the commission started identifying progress when there was none, “forgot” to follow up on some of its earlier recommendations, and turned a blind eye to Bulgaria’s misuse of some CVM recommendations to strengthen an autocratic foundation. For instance, under the guidance of the commission, Bulgaria created an anti-corruption agency, which is paradoxically used to harass government opponents and to whitewash corrupt politicians from the governing status quo.
While common sense dictates that corruption cannot fight itself, Bulgarian citizens have become victims of EU-level political alliances, where complicity with Bulgaria’s regime are hidden under the veil of “mutual trust” and “continuing dialogue.”
It seems that, in the end, behind-the-curtain deals trump EU values.
Ivan VejvodaPermanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences
It should and it must. It is about the credibility of the European project and about the level of trust citizens will have in their institutions.
No country, however well off, is immune from the scourge of corruption. Just because democratic checks and balances and the rule of law are in place does not mean that many do not get away with corrupt practices.
The murder of two journalists (Malta’s Daphne Caruana Galizia and Slovakia’s Ján Kuciak) who were investigating high level corruption in their respective EU member states showed the tip of the iceberg. The investigation into Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and his alleged misuse of EU funds is another example. But many stories over the past three decades about political party slush funds and corruption involving politicians, as well as kickbacks from companies privileged in tendering procedures, all show that corrupt practices are not being stymied.
The appointment of Kövesi to the position of EU public prosecutor is a crucial, if not historic, step in the right direction. The leadership and courage she has exhibited in her home country of Romania bodes well for the task that lies ahead.
Support for her work from all quarters of the EU and member states will be crucial to her success or failure in this job.