Europe's choice for clean governance

In choosing its first chief prosecutor, the EU must also confront one member, Romania, which is backsliding on corruption.

Laura Codruta Kovesi, Romania's former chief anti-corruption prosecutor, arrives to attend a hearing at the judiciary in Bucharest, Romania, Feb. 15.

 It is rare indeed when judges and prosecutors go on strike in a country. It is even rarer when they strike for their independence rather than wages. Yet this is now the case in Romania, which is at the epicenter of the European Union’s attempts to rein in corruption within the 28-member bloc.

Since joining the EU in 2007, Romania has been on official probation along with Bulgaria to ensure it moves toward clean governance. A special independent body was set up – to the credit of the country’s voters – to go after a deep culture of corruption left from Romania’s communist days. From 2013 to 2018, the agency was able to try or convict thousands of officials.

Last year, however, the head of the agency, Laura Kövesi, was forced out by the ruling Social Democrats who took power two years ago. The reason: The party’s leader was one of those convicted, making him unable to become prime minister.

Over the past year, the government has rolled back much of the progress against corruption, triggering an outcry by the EU. One measure the government approved in February impinges on the independence of judges and prosecutors, leading to the strike.  

Just as critical, the government wants to stop Ms. Kövesi from being appointed as the EU’s first chief prosecutor. The government’s campaign even includes starting an investigation of top EU officials as well as filing bogus charges against her.

The EU is confronting this backsliding by Romania. On Wednesday, EU lawmakers approved Kövesi as chief prosecutor, although her final appointment awaits a nod in March by the European Council. One lawmaker praised her “dignified courage that inspired people across our continent.”

The new post is designed to go after misuse of the $160 billion that the EU spends annually in member states. Overall, corruption costs the EU economy nearly a trillion euros a year, according to a 2016 study. The most corrupt members are Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Italy, and Greece.

During her work as prosecutor in Romania, Kövesi investigated some 2,000 fraud cases a year involving EU funds. Her antigraft efforts were made easier, she says, because Romanians are resisting demands for bribes. And they better understand basic rights, such as equality before the law. No doubt the striking judges and prosecutors have the people’s support.

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