Heads of state and government in Brussels on Thursday (9 March) agreed to allow a group of member states to set up the office following years of deadlock in a debate that often revolved around broader sensibilities of national sovereignty.
The latest agreement reached at an EU summit opens the door for an EU-level prosecutor with powers to investigate, prosecute and bring to justice anyone committing fraud that involves the EU budget or cross-border VAT. An estimated €50 billion VAT revenues are lost each year due to cross-border fraud, says the European Commission.
The move is largely procedural but also symbolic for an EU currently debating the possibility of a so-called multi-speed Europe, where some countries can forge ahead with deeper integration.
Sweden earlier this year opposed the European Public Prosecutors Office (EPPO) along with others like Poland, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands voicing objections.
Those objections doomed the launch of an EU-wide EPPO, requiring unanimity among member states.
But supporters have since opted to a launch an EPPO that requires the backing of only nine EU states.
Some 17 EU states in a letter earlier this year piled on the pressure for EU summit leaders to endorse a smaller EPPO.
That letter was signed by Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.
Cyprus and Portugal have yet to sign it because of internal procedures first required to validate it.
Ill at ease
The big contender is Italy.
The country’s justice minister Andrea Orlando wants a much stronger EPPO with more powers ascribed than what is currently proposed.
It means, among other things, that the Italian version of the EPPO would have greater discretion on investigations. They are also more keen to allow the EPPO to probe other possible issues like organised crime.
The office, as it now stands, is a collegial structure made up of two levels, with a chief prosecutor supported by two deputies at the top. It will also integrate into national justice systems.
The commission is set to revise the text behind the prosecutor to accommodate the Italians in an effort to get them on board.
«Now that we have a core group of countries that want to go forward with it, we will rework the text a bit», said one EU official.
The plan is to reach an agreement among the co-legislators – the member states and the European Parliament – before the end of the year, with a 2019 launch date.
But the possibility of expanding the EPPO’s powers has put some EU states ill at ease.
Malta, which holds the EU presidency until the end of June, has to juggle between opposing the EPPO and supporting it at the same time.
Minister of justice Owen Bonnici told reporters in January that Malta is part of a minority that won’t join the EPPO.
«Malta believes that tax issues should be a full competence of the member states but that doesn’t mean as the presidency, keep in mind that I am wearing the hat of the presidency of the Council now, will act as an honest broker to make sure that this office is born», he said.