Fighting graft without borders

Both the EU and U.S. are combating transnational corruption in a very novel transnational way.

Laura Codruta Kovesi, Romania's former chief anti-corruption prosecutor, is now the European Union's first chief prosecutor.

In the last two months, both the European Union and the United States have tried a novel idea in transnational justice. They have each set up a capacity to investigate corruption across borders. Their goals are quite different. The EU wants to plug an estimated $73 billion hole in its budget from fraud in its 27 member states. The U.S. seeks to curb corruption in Central America, a prime source of migration. Yet they are both setting a precedent for supranational honesty in governance.

In June, the Biden White House declared the fight against corruption to be a “core” national security interest. To show that it is serious, it struck an agreement with Guatemala that would allow U.S. prosecutors and law enforcement to “advise” and “mentor” Guatemalan prosecutors in specific corruption cases, such as human trafficking or transnational drug deals.

The U.S. would like to do the same in El Salvador and Honduras in hopes that cleaner government will be an incentive for citizens in those countries to stay put. “We will not make significant progress if corruption in the region persists,” says Vice President Kamala Harris, who is in charge of stemming cross-border migration.

The EU is further along. Its first chief prosecutor, Laura Codruța Kövesi from Romania, has launched more than 1,000 cases since June against criminals in member states that cheat the EU of revenue or misuse its funds. The new European Public Prosecutor’s Office, EPPO, is especially needed as the EU plans to spend about €2 trillion to boost its pandemic-hit economy.

EU leaders know that the wealthier states in the union do not want that money stolen, which would add to other tensions within the bloc. A poll in June found a third of people in the EU say corruption has gotten worse over the previous year. EPPO was set up as an independent agency to work within member states – in case those states fail in their anti-corruption efforts.

Ms. Kövesi gained fame in Europe for sending thousands of Romanian officials to prison for corruption. She sees EPPO as “the first really sharp tool” to defend rule of law in the EU and to remind citizens of equality before the law. Such universal precepts make it easier – and necessary – for anti-graft prosecutors to sometimes operate across borders.

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