Romanian anti-graft crusader to become first EU fraud prosecutor

By Foo Yun Chee and Luiza Ilie
FILE PHOTO: Romania's former chief anti-corruption prosecutor Kovesi arrives to attend a hearing in Bucharest

By Foo Yun Chee and Luiza Ilie

BRUSSELS/BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's former anti-corruption chief Laura Codruta Kovesi is set to become the European Union's first fraud prosecutor despite opposition from Bucharest after most member states backed her over of the French candidate.

Kovesi, who won a reputation as a tough anti-graft crusader in Romania before the government sacked her in July last year, had already secured support for the post in the new European Public Prosecutor's Office from the European Parliament.

"I hope that this vote motivates Romanian magistrates to continue the fight against corruption, defend the independence of the judiciary and resist potential pressures and harassment," Kovesi told Reuters.

The EU Council will hold a formal vote in the coming weeks which is expected to confirm the appointment.

Marko Ruonala, spokesman for Finland, which currently holds the EU presidency, said on Thursday that a majority of EU ambassadors voted for Kovesi in an informal secret ballot.

EU countries had previously endorsed France's candidate Jean-Francois Bohnert for the job, but the choice triggered criticism from some EU lawmakers and other groups.

The EU plans to set up the European Public Prosecutor's Office next year to tackle corruption, value-added tax fraud and other crimes involving the bloc's multi-billion-euro budget. Twenty-two EU countries have signed up to the project.

At the moment, only national authorities can investigate and prosecute EU budget fraud in their respective countries.

"By choosing Kovesi, the EU is sending a firm message to criminals and the corrupt everywhere, that it is willing to properly defend the EU's budget," said Saskia Bricmont a green lawmaker in the European Parliament.

Officials in Brussels and Washington have criticised Romania's ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) for an overhaul of the judiciary that has been seen as a threat to the rule of law, as well as for watering down anti-graft legislation.

Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila told reporters on Wednesday that the Romanian ambassador had been mandated to vote against Kovesi's appointment.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, who has repeatedly criticised the Social Democrats for undermining the rule of law, said the vote was an important victory for Romania.

"Especially because it was obtained despite the fact that the PSD government has permanently tried to block the candidacy of a professional acknowledged for the fight against corruption and defending the rule of law."

Guy Verhofstadt, a liberal EU lawmaker and former Belgian PM said Kovesi was, "not only the best person for the job but also an important signal to the Romanian government: You shouldn't have fired her. These kind of dubious decisions will backfire."

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee in Brussels and Luiza Ilie in Bucharest; editing by David Clarke)