Romanian anti-corruption stays where it was in the spring, crucified between two strong camps. The effect of Kövesi’s victory on Romanian politics will be short, believes the expert of good governance Codru Vrabie. He thinks that the European Public Prosecutor’s Office may have no significant results from Kövesi’s mandate. But indeed, we observe that all over the world prosecutors get stronger as institutions.
Codru Vrabie is a civic activist, trainer and consultant on good governance, transparency, responsibility, and integrity in the public sector. He has contributed to many reform measures in justice and public administration. Vrabie has BAs in legal and political sciences (Romania, Bulgaria, the USA) and MAs in administrative sciences and European affairs (Romania, the Netherlands, Spain). He has worked for various Romanian civil society organizations since 1998. In 2010, Vrabie started working with the Leaders for Justice” programme, which was replicated in 2017 by the Republic of Moldova. In April 2018, Codru joined the team of telegraful.net, where he works on the podcast series “Hypotheses” – a project of the Courage Ahead Association (Curaj Înainte).
Mr. Vrabie, how does the expected victory of Laura Kövesi in the competition for the head of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) influence Romanian anti-corruption?
I think that this piece of news will be forgotten in Bucharest immediately after the presidential elections, because the European prosecution EPPO will not have notable activity in the first year of its establishment. The issue might seem relevant now, during the election campaign, but no one in Romania deals with the substance of anti-corruption policies. No one dealt with that earlier either. Everyone talked, but no one did anything concrete. So there is no way Romanian anti-corruption will be influenced by her victory.
Romanian anti-corruption is in the same situation as it was in the spring, when we had our previous interview. The camps are the same. The first one is the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and other parties, which want to protect their positions. They will continue to argue against the anti-corruption agency DNA, but “in a measured way”, because they understand how important it is to play on the right side of strategic partnerships with the US and EU. The second camp is the #rezist movement and their political representatives, who will continue to quarrel with PSD, even if they have no solutions for substantial improvement of Romania’s anti-corruption agency. This is what the Americans call a “stalemate”.
I think it is important to remember that DNA (the anti-corruption through penal means) was operating somewhat in the shadows, but now it may try to pretend it has a clean face. Anti-corruption through administrative, managerial, and preventative means can’t take hold, because it doesn’t seem to interest anybody except a few specialists. But penal anti-corruption hasn’t washed its face, and hasn’t cleared the issues from the past. So I would say that this reinvigorating oxygen, the expected appointment of Kövesi, is not deserved. But let’s have no illusions, there is no way DNA would rid us of corrupt politicians.
How does Kövesi’s victory influence the political equations in Romania on the eve of presidential elections in November 2019?
If you want a metaphor, “Kövesi’s victory” is like a flower in a buttonhole – it looks beautiful, but you know that it will decay by the end of the day and you can’t wear it tomorrow. For anti-corruption and Romanian politics it is fresh air because of three reasons:
– For a large number of Romanians (especially the #rezist movement) Kövesi’s elimination from DNA in 2018 was an abuse of power and unjust. This part of the population sees the news of Kövesi’s success as divine justice, in which the EU has hit the PSD;
– There is an election campaign, in which this news provokes emotions and gives topics for discussion on the TV. It looks like it favors Mr. Iohannis (probably also Mr. Barna) and discredits Mrs. Dancila. I don’t know how it influences the other competitors.
– Last, but not least, those who await the vote of the European Parliament for commissioners notice that Romania is very polarised with regard to the candidature of Mrs. Plumb to the commission. How will the PNL and USR-PLUS deputies vote? There are suspicions that a vote for Kovesi is in exchange for a vote for Mrs. Plumb, which means new political bargaining around Kövesi. We remember how she was appointed to the DNA in 2013, through a negotiation between the prime minister Ponta and the former president Basescu.
What expectations should we have from the European prosecution under the rule of Laura Kövesi?
I would like to remind you that only in 2019 did the EU apply a decision that was recommended back in 1999 (I mean the Middelhoel reports, on whose basis OLAF was established) through the establishment of the European prosecution. So the EU needed 20 years. I am not sure yet whether the European prosecution will be an efficient institution. Maybe we will learn this in 2022, when I suppose that it will manage to make the first formal accusation. I don’t see how they could come any earlier. In 2020 the institution will still be undergoing development with HQ, staff, internal work procedures. In 2021 maybe the first significant case will start and it is possible that a lot of the procedural acts will be attacked in the national courts or even in the European Court of Justice. In 2022 maybe the first charges in the first case will come. So only in 2023 we could have the first definitive convictions. Attention, we will have new elections for the European parliament in 2024.
Last but not least, I would like to clarify something more: Objectively, Mrs. Kövesi doesn’t represent Romania in the competition for the head of the European prosecution, because there we have a competition between professionals, in which, at least theoretically, it doesn’t matter which country they come from. But at a subjective level, it is very useful to evaluate the issue from the perspective of member-states, because they voted today in COREPER. If we want to discuss in this way, then we will observe that “old Europe” has chosen somebody from “new Europe”, with whom it shares the same values. Or, alternatively, that “new Europe” (the illiberal one, with Poland, Hungary, Romania, maybe Bulgaria) has calculated wrongly the way, in which it opposed some reforms, related to justice and the rule of law, in the sense that it didn’t receive any heavyweight portfolio in the EU after the European elections in May (with the exception of this position in the European prosecution, which was given to Eastern Europe in spite of all the desires of the Eastern Europe itself).
To sum up – everyone could be happy or sad, in accordance with how he wants to look at things. Personally, I am not convinced that it is good that the first head of the European prosecution can be an attackable person over bad management of the DNA, over the secret protocols for collaboration with the Romanian secret services, over the political bargain for its appointment in 2013 or 2019, or over the plagiarism in her doctorate’s thesis (the final verdict of the verification commission was that only 4% was plagiarised but this is still plagiarism). There could be other reasons for attacking her, which I can’t recall right now. But if our representatives have decided like that, we have to live with this decision…
In the last few years prosecutors, as an institution, have gotten stronger in a lot of countries around the world. Should this tendency worry us? How can we be sure that the chief prosecutors will not become the strongest and most uncontrolled state officials?
I would say that we should remain calm and look carefully at what is going on. There are a few reasonable motives for the ascension of prosecution:
– The greater transparency in the public space makes information on the wealth of public officials more accessible, while the public opinion eagerly feeds on “the blood” of such high-ranking officials, so prosecutors have work to do;
– The conflicts between politicians are no longer resolved through political negotiations, but through spectacular penal cases, which catch the attention of news agencies and people on the web – so prosecutors again have work to do;
– The changes through which our economies go make markets and great multinational corporations more dependent on political decisions, so it is easier to appear suspicious of corruption – and prosecutors again have work to do…
Therefore, prosecution is strongly affirmed, because we have constructed our societies and states this way. But prosecution is in no way more important than the court. And justice is not more important than parliament and government, anywhere in the world. It would be ideal if they were all equal, but there is no way that prosecution could reach above them.
Photo: Codru Vrabie (source: Vlad Stanciu, Association INK)
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Vladimir Mitev is a Bulgarian-Romanian journalist based in Rousse, a town on the very border between the two countries. He is the editor-in-chief of the Romanian website BARICADA Romania, which initially started as a Romanian language version of the Bulgarian portal by the same name. He focuses on international politics. He has worked for the Bulgarian weekly “Tema” until its closure in 2015. He founded the bilingual Romanian-Bulgarian blog ”The Bridge of Friendship”. His articles and translations have been published by the BGNES agency, the magazines of A-specto and Economy, the blog of ”Solidary Bulgaria” and others. He has published also in the Romanian magazines of Decât o Revista și Q Magazine, in the Romanian cultural magazines of Vatra and Poesis, and in the Romanian left-wing portal Critic Atac.